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THE CORPSE WALKER is a compilation of 
twenty-seven extraordinary oral histories that 
opens a window, unlike any other, onto the 
lives of ordinary, often outcast, Chinese men 
and women. Liao Yiwu (one of the best-known 
writers in China because he is also one of the 
most censored) chose his subjects from the bot- 
tom of Chinese society: people for whom the 
“new” China — the China of economic growth 
and globalization — is no more beneficial than 
the old. By asking challenging questions with 
respect and empathy, he manages to get his 
subjects to talk openly about their lives. 

Here are a professional mourner, a traf- 
ficker in humans, a leper, an abbot, a retired 
government official, a former landowner, a 
mortician, a feng shui master, a former Red 
Guard, a political prisoner, a village teacher, 
a blind street musician, a Falun Gong practi- 
tioner, and many others — people who have been 
battered by life but who have managed to retain 
their dignity, their humor, and their essential, 
complex humanity. 

Liao crafted the interviews (conducted 
between 1993 and 2006) with sensitivity and 
patience, working both from notes and from 
his own memory of these remarkable conversa- 
tions. The result is an idiosyncratic, powerful, 
and richly revealing portrait of a people, a 
time, and a place we might otherwise have 
never known. 



The Corpse Walker 

The Corpse Walker 

Real-Life Stories, 
China from the Bottom Up 


Translated from the Chinese and 
with an introduction by Wen Huang 


New York 

Introduction and translation copyright © 2008 by Wen Huang 

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, 
a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada 
by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. 

Pantheon Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc. 

This translation is composed of ten new pieces and sixteen pieces that were 
originally published in Chinese in Taiwan as part of Interviews with People from the 
Bottom Rung of Society, published by Rye Field Publishing Co., Taipei, in 2002. 
Copyright © 2002 by Liao Yiwu. 

The following pieces were previously published: “The Mortician” in Harper's; 
and “The Corpse Walker," “The Human Trafficker," “The Leper,” “The Peasant 
Emperor,” "The Professional Mourner,” “The Public Toilet Manag er,” and 
“The Retired Official” in The Paris Review. 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 

Liao, Yiwu, [date] 

The corpse walker : real-life stories, China from the bottom up / Liao Yiwu ; 
translated from the Chinese by Wen Huang, 
p. cm. 

ISBN 978-0-375-42542-4 

I. Working class — China. 2. Social structure — China. 

3. China — Social conditions. 4. China — Economic conditions. I. Title. 
HD8736.5L.56 2008 

362.850951 — dc22 2007034160 
Printed in the United States of America 

First Edition 


Foreword by Phili-p Gourevitch vii 

Introduction: The Voice of China's 

Social Outcasts by Wen Huang ix 

The Professional Mourner 3 

The Human Trafficker 13 

The Public Restroom Manager 20 

The Corpse Walkers 28 

The Leper 40 

The Peasant Emperor 50 

The Feng Shui Master 61 

The Abbot 73 

The Composer 93 

The Rightist 1 1 1 

The Retired Official 121 

The Former Landowner ^ 

The Yi District Chief’s Wife I/( 6 

The Village Teacher ,6 0 

The Mortician ^ 

The Neighborhood Committee Director 182 

The Former Red Guard I( ^ 

The Counterrevolutionary 203 

The Tiananmen Father 214 

The Falun Gong Practitioner 230 

The Illegal Border Crasser 242 

The Grave Robber 254 

The Safecracker 267 

The Blind Erhu Player 277 

The Street Singer 284 

The Sleepwalker 298 

The Migrant Worker 308 

Translator's Acknowledgments 319 


To hear a new voice is one of the great excitements that a book can 
offer — and through Liao Yiwu we hear more than two dozen original 
voices that have a great deal to say. Liao is at once an unflinching observer 
and recorder, a shoe-leather reporter and an artful storyteller, an oral his- 
torian and deft mimic, a folklorist and satirist. Above all, he is a medium 
for whole muzzled swathes of Chinese society that the Party would like to 
pretend do not exist: hustlers and drifters, outlaws and street performers, 
the officially renegade and the physically handicapped, those who deal 
with human waste and with the wasting of humans, artists and shamans, 
crooks, even cannibals — and every one of them speaks more honestly 
than the official chronicles of Chinese life that are put out by the state in 
the name of "the people.” 

Liao was shaped as a writer by the harshest of experiences: he 
nearly starved to death as a child and his father was branded an enemy of 
the people; he was thrown in jail for writing poems that spoke truthfully 
about China’s Communist Party and he was beaten in jail for refusing to 
shut up; and he discovered in jail the enormous value of listening to oth- 
ers like him whom the authorities wanted to keep forever unheard. So 
Liao writes with the courage of a man who knows loss and doesn't fear it. 
There is nothing to make him take notice like an official injunction 
against noticing, nothing to make him listen like official deafness, noth- 
ing that drives him to make us see than the blindness that Communist 

Foreword viii 

officialdom seeks to impose. But it is not merely defiance, and it is hardly 
political polemic, that drives the vitality of the stories in this collection. 
What makes Liaos encounters with his characters so powerful is the fact 
that he clearly delights in their humanity, however twisted its expression, 
and he shows his respect for his subjects in the most fundamental way: 
he lets them speak for themselves. 

There is no question that Liao Yiwu is one of the most original and 
remarkable Chinese writers of our time. It is, however, truer to say that he 
is one of the most original and remarkable writers of our time, and that 
he is from China. Yes, his language is Chinese, his country and its people 
are his subject, and his stories originate from intensely local encounters. 
But even to someone who has never been to China, and who can know 
Liaos work only through Wen Huang's translations, these stories have an 
immediacy and an intimacy that crosses all boundaries and classifica- 
tions. They belong to the great common inheritance of world literature. 

Liao Yiwu is an original, but it seems a very good bet that writers as 
diverse as Mark Twain and Jack London, Nikolai Gogol and George 
Orwell, Francois Rabelais and Primo Levi would have recognized him at 
once as a brother in spirit and in letters. He is a ringmaster of the human 
circus, and his work serves as a powerful reminder — as vital and neces- 
sary in open societies lulled by their freedoms as it is in closed societies 
where telling truthful stories can be a crime — that it is not only in the vis- 
ible and noisy wielders of power but equally in the marginalized, over- 
looked, and unheard that the history of our kind is most tellingly 

Philip Gourevitch 
November 2007 

Introduction: The Voice of China's Social Outcasts 

When the Chinese government tanks rolled into Beijing on the night of 
June 3, 1989, and brutally suppressed the students’ pro-democracy move- 
ment, Liao Yiwu was home in the southwestern province of Sichuan. The 
news shocked him to the very core. Overnight, Liao composed a long 
poem, “Massacre,” that portrayed with stark imagery the killing of inno- 
cent students and residents as vividly as Picasso painted the Nazi bomb- 
ing massacre in the town of Guernica. 

Without any chance of having his poem published in China, Liao 
made an audiotape of himself reciting “Massacre," using Chinese ritualis- 
tic chanting and howling to invoke the spirit of the dead. The tape record- 
ing was widely circulated via underground channels in China. In another 
poem written at that time, he described his sense of frustration at being 
unable to fight back. 

You were born with the soul of an assassin, 

But at a time of action, 

You are at a loss, doing nothing. 

You have no sword to draw, 

Your body a sheath rusted, 

Your hands shaking, 

Your bones rotten, 

Your near-sighted eyes cannot do the shooting. 



That tape of “Massacre” as well as a movie he made with friends of 
its sequel, Requiem, caught the attention of the Chinese security 
police. In February 1990, as he was boarding a train to Beijing, police 
swooped down on him. Six of his poet and writer friends, as well as his 
pregnant wife, were also arrested simultaneously for their involvement in 
his movie project. As the ringleader, Liao received a four-year sentence. 

Since then Liao has permanently been placed on the government 
blacklist. Most of his works are still banned in China, where he lives, as a 
street musician in a small town in southwestern Yunnan Province, under 
the watchful eyes of the public security bureau. He has been detained 
numerous times in the past for conducting "illegal interviews” and for 
exposing the dark side of Communist society in his documentary-style 
book Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society. The twenty- 
seven stories that appear in this book are translated and adapted from 
that collection as well as from his recent writings posted on overseas 
Chinese-language Web sites. 

Liao was born in 1958, in the year of the dog. It was also the year 
that Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward, a campaign aimed at 
industrializing Chinas backward peasant economy. The forced collec- 
tivization of agriculture and the blind mobilization of the whole country 
to adopt primitive ways of producing iron and steel led to a famine in i960 
that claimed the lives of some thirty million people. 

During the famine, he suffered from edema and was dying. Out of 
desperation, Liao’s mother carried him to the countryside, where an 
herbal doctor “held me over a wok that contained boiling herbal water.” 
The herbal steam miraculously restored him. 

In 1966, Liaos family was deeply affected when his father, a school- 
teacher, was branded a counterrevolutionary during the Cultural Revolu- 
tion. His parents filed for divorce to protect their children from the 
fathers pariah status. Life was hard without his father. Among his child- 
hood memories, there is one he still recalls vividly: “A relative gave my 
mother a government-issued coupon that was good for two-meters of 
cloth. But, when mother sold it on the black market to buy food for us, 
she got caught by the police and was paraded, along with other criminals, 
on the stage of the Sichuan Opera House in front of thousands of people. 
After several of my classmates who had seen my mother told me about it, 

I was devastated." 

After high school, Liao traveled around the country, working as a 



cook, and then as a truck driver on the Sichuan-Tibet Highway. In his 
spare time he read previously banned Western poets, from Keats to 
Baudelaire. He also began to compose his own poems and to publish in 
literary magazines. 

Throughout the 1980s, Liao became one of the most popular new 
poets in China and contributed regularly to influential literary magazines 
as well as to underground publications that published contemporary 
Western-style poems considered by the government to be “spiritual pollu- 
tion." In the spring of 1989, two prominent magazines took advantage of 
the temporary political thaw and carried Liao's long poems “The Yellow 
City" and "Idol.” In the poems he used allegorical allusions to criticize 
what he called a system paralyzed and eaten away by a collective leukemia. 
He claimed that the emergence of Mao was the symptom of this incurable 
cancer. Alarmed by the poems’ bold anti-Communist messages, police 
searched Liao's home and subjected him to thorough interrogations, depo- 
sitions, and short-term detention. The magazine publishers were also 
disciplined; one magazine was ordered to shut down. 

Liao’s imprisonment in 1990 for his condemnation of the govern- 
ment crackdown on the student pro-democracy movement the previous 
year was a defining chapter in his life. Ostracized and depressed during 
his four-year incarceration, he rebelled against prison rules, only to be 
subjected to abusive punishment: prodded by electric batons, tied up, 
handcuffed, and forced to stand in the hot summer sun for hours. At one 
point, his hands were tied behind his back for twenty-three days in soli- 
tary confinement until abscesses covered his armpits. He suffered several 
mental collapses and attempted suicide twice. He was known among the 
inmates as “the big lunatic.” 

In 1994, following international pressure, Liao was released fifty 
days before completing his prison term. (The Chinese government claimed 
he was being rewarded for good behavior.) He returned home to find that 
his wife had left him, taking their child. His city residential registration 
was cancelled, rendering him unemployable and subject to expulsion to 
the countryside. His former literary friends avoided him in fear. His only 
possession was a flute, which he had learned to play in jail. Liao walked 
through the noisy streets in his native city of Chengdu and began his life 
anew as a street musician. 

Liao did not give up his literary pursuits. In 1998, he compiled the 
volume The Fall of the Holy Temple, an anthology of underground poems 



of the 1970s, which includes works by, or made references to, numerous 
Chinese dissidents. One of China’s vice premiers personally ordered an 
investigation into the book, calling it a “premeditated attempt to over- 
throw the government, and is supported by powerful anti-China groups.” 
He was detained again and the publisher was prohibited from releasing 
any new books for one year. 

As the Chinese government tightened its noose on his publishing 
career, Liao sank further to the bottom, picking up odd jobs in restaurants, 
nightclubs, teahouses, and bookstores. But his life at the bottom broadened 
the scope of his intended book about the socially marginalized people that 
he had befriended. The conversations with his prison inmates and people 
on the street gave rise to Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of 
Society. Among the sixty interviews selected for his book were those of a 
professional mourner, a human trafficker, a murderer, a beggar, a fortune- 
teller, a burglar, a dissident, a homosexual, a whoremaster, a former land- 
lord, a schoolteacher, and a Falun Gong practitioner. Like the author 
himself, all of the individuals were either thrown to the bottom of society 
during the various political purges in the Maoist era or landed there as a 
result of the tumultuous changes of today’s evolving Chinese society. 

The interviews are literary as well as journalistic — reconstructions 
rather than transcriptions of his encounters with his subjects. Because 
the interviews required extra sensitivity and patience, he sometimes 
eschewed the usual tools of a tape recorder and a notebook. Whether he 
was in prison or on the street, Liao always spent a considerable amount of 
time with his subjects, trying to gain their trust before conducting any 
interviews. For one story, it might require three to four conversations on 
different occasions. For example, he interviewed a mortician seven times 
and then incorporated all his conversations into one piece. 

In 2001, the Yangtse Publishing House published a sanitized and 
shortened version of the book and it immediately became a best seller. Yu 
Jie, a well-known independent literary critic in Beijing, called the book “a 
sociologist’s investigative report, which can serve as a historical record of 
contemporary China. Another independent critic, Ren Bumei, observed 
in an interview with Radio Free Asia: “All the individuals depicted in the 
book have one thing in common — they have all been deprived of their 
right to speak out. This book is a loud condemnation of the deprivation of 
their rights to speak and an excellent portrayal of this group of unique 



For the first time after the Communist takeover in 1949, Liao intro- 
duced the word diceng, or “bottom rung of society" to the country. The 
notion is anathema to supporters of Mao’s Communist movement, which 
is supposed to create an egalitarian society free of prostitutes, beggars, 
triad gangsters, and drug abusers. As expected, the Propaganda Depart- 
ment and the China News and Publishing Administration ordered all of 
Liao's books off the shelves, punished his editor at the publishing house, 
and fired all key staff at a popular Chinese weekly, The Southern Week- 
end, which had carried an interview with Liao and featured his book. 

In 2002, Kang Zhengguo, a writer and lecturer at Yale University, 
met Liao in China and smuggled the complete manuscript out of the 
country. With Kang’s help, the Taiwan-based Rye Field Publishing Com- 
pany released an unabridged version of Interviews with People from the 
Bottom Rung of Society in three volumes. In the same year, Liao received 
a literary award from the Independent Chinese PEN Center, and in 2003 
he received a Hellman-Hammett Grant, an annual award given by 
Human Rights Watch in recognition of writers who show courage in the 
face of political persecution. 

I first heard of Liao back in June 2001 when I was contracted by 
Radio Free Asia to translate an interview he taped with the station, not 
long after the book was banned in China. The interview piqued my inter- 
est in the author. Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society 
reminds me of Studs Terkel’s book Working, in which Terkel collected 
interviews with Americans from all walks of life, ranging from a waitress 
and a telephone operator to a baseball player and a musician, who talked 
about their jobs and lives in America. Working was translated into Chi- 
nese in the 1980s, with the title Americans Talk About Lives in America. 
As a college student in China, I read both the English and Chinese ver- 
sions (my teacher chose the English version of Working as a textbook for 
colloquial American English). Working introduced me, and many other 
Chinese, to the real America and the lives of ordinary Americans, about 
which 1 didn’t know much before. Similarly, I believe the true-life stories 
in Liao’s book will serve the same purpose for Western readers, helping 
them understand China from the perspective of ordinary Chinese. 

Starting in 2002 , 1 made numerous attempts to contact Liao through 
his friends in China. The search turned out to be an arduous task because 
as a dissident writer, he had to move constantly to dodge police harass- 
ment. One time he had to jump from a third-story window and run away 



from Chengdu to escape arrest after he had interviewed a member of an 
outlawed religious group. 

One day in early 2004, I received an e-mail from a friend who was a 
former visiting scholar at Harvard University. She happened to know Liao 
pretty well and managed to track him down after she returned to Beijing 
from the United States. In her e-mail, I learned that Liao had agreed to 
my proposal of translating his works into English and he had also pro- 
vided his cell-phone number. 1 checked the area code and it was from a 
small town somewhere near the Chinese border with Myanmar. 

The two-hour conversation marked the beginning of our partner- 
ship. Over the next two years, Liao and I collaborated on the translations 
through e-mails and telephone calls. Sometimes we talked in our mutu- 
ally understood codes or through our mutual friends if we believed our 
conversation was being tapped. 

In the summer of 2005, three interviews from Liao’s book — the pro- 
fessional mourner, the human trafficker, and the public restroom man- 
ager appeared for the first time in English in The Paris Review, in the 
inaugural issue under its new editor, Philip Gourevitch. 

Following the successful Paris Review debut, Liao and I selected 
twenty-seven stories that we feel are both representative of his work and 
might be of interest to Western readers. We also restructured and short- 
ened the narratives, adding background information to help readers who 
are not familiar with the political and historical references mentioned in 
the interviews. As suggested in the title, we hope the book will offer 
Western readers a glimpse of contemporary China from the bottom up. 

Meanwhile, Liao continues to break Chinese government censor- 
ship laws by publishing his works on overseas Chinese-language Web 
sites despite repeated police harassment. In December 2007, Liao was 
detained and interrogated for more than four hours when he traveled to 
Beijing to receive the Freedom to Write Award given by the Independent 
Chinese PEN Center. He is not intimidated. With the help of a Chinese 
lawyer, he is now suing the government for violating his human rights. "I 
am trying to overcome, little by little, the fear that's been inflicted on me,” 
he says. By doing so, I try to preserve my sanity and inner freedom.” 

Wen Huang 
January 20 08 

The Corpse Walker 


I met Li Changgeng in Jiangyou County, in the southwestern 
province of Sichuan, on the way to the picturesque Baoyuan 
Mountain. Li, a professional mourner, is nearly seventy years 
old. He was born in the central province of Henan, and despite 
years of absence from his hometown, he still carried traces of 
the twanging Henan accent. He looked healthy and tough, half 
a head taller than a typical Sichuanese. He attributed his 
healthy constitution to years of playing the traditional horn, the 
suona — the long, trumpet-belled, Chinese oboe — which he 
told me requires considerable physical strength. Suona music 
and wailing are both used to create the mood of lamentation at 
traditional funerals. 

liao yiwu: How do you manage to wail and howl over a stranger? 

li changgeng: I entered the mourning profession at the age of twelve. 
My teacher forced me to practice the basic suona tunes, as well as to 
learn how to wail and chant. Having a solid foundation in the basics 
enables a performer to improvise with ease, and to produce an earth- 
shattering effect. Our wailing sounds more authentic than that of the 
children or relatives of the deceased. 

Most people who have lost their family members burst into tears 
and begin wailing upon seeing the body of the deceased. But their wail- 
ing doesn’t last. Soon they are overcome with grief. When grief reaches 
into their hearts, they either suffer from shock or pass out. But for us, 
once we get into the mood, we control our emotions and improvise 
with great ease. We can wail as long as is requested. If it’s a grand 
funeral and the money is good, we do lots of improvisations to please 
the host. 

I left home and came southwest to Sichuan Province at the age of 
sixteen. Sichuan was a wealthier place than Henan, and people were 



willing to blow big money on weddings and funerals. I became pretty 
famous not long after 1 arrived here. This is a profession, like acting in 
a play or a movie. Once you have started, you gradually grow into the 
role. In a movie, the actor follows a script. For mourners and wailers, 
we follow the tunes of the music. 

These tunes — “Sending Off the Spirit,” “Pursuing the Spirit,” 
"Requiem," “Calling the Spirit," “Farewell from Family Members,” 
“The Ultimate Sorrow,” “Sealing the Coffin,” “Transcending to 
Heaven," “Burial,” “One Last Look,” “The Searing Pain,” and “Oh I Am 
So Sad” — have been performed for hundreds of years, passed down 
from generation to generation. There are specific instructions on where 
to hit the high notes, or drop to the low notes; where to use a cracked 
voice, or to be high-pitched; where to wail with the effect of a dry 
throat, or to cry with tears; and where to tremble your body with great 
sadness or where to sound like you're losing your voice. It has to be very 

liao: How long can you wail? What was your record? 

Li: Two days and two nights. Normally, once the suona starts the open- 
ing tune, all us band members will drop whatever we’re doing and put 
on our white linen outfits. Then, in unison, we bow to the portraits of 
the deceased three times, and kowtow nine times. Then we start two 
rounds of crying, sobbing, and wailing. It sounds pretty chaotic on the 
surface, but if you take time to observe us from the side for about an 
hour or so, you will notice that it is a well-orchestrated chaos. For 
example, when I sob, you wail. It’s like while you’re taking a break, I 
work the shift. Voices are our capital and we know how to protect 
them. Not even a loud, searing, heartbreaking wail will damage our 


People’s feelings of happiness or anger can be as contagious as a 
disease, and spread fast. Of course, we recognize that the family mem- 
bers of the deceased are the lead actors. But often, when they're over- 
come with sadness, their bodies begin to weaken. Before long all the 
lead actors have to exit the stage. At this time, we, the supporting 
actors, enter refreshed and warmed up for the role. Frankly speaking, 
the hired mourners are the ones who can stick to the very end. 

As a hired mourner, you are both a participant and an observer. 
Sometimes, I will steal a glance or two at the relatives: some of them 

The Professional Mourner 5 

are truly grief-stricken, thrusting forward to the coffin, hoping to cling 
to the deceased. Others are just feigning. At that point, we are 
entrusted with dual roles: we will cry and wail our hearts out, and at 
the same time act as bodyguards, making-sure to stop the relatives from 
dashing forward to bang against the coffin. After all the relatives have 
walked past the coffin and made their farewells, we come in to keep 
the momentum going. Traditions dictate that before the coffin is 
sealed, about five or six of us will try to thrust forward three times, try- 
ing to reach over to the deceased, and the others will seize our shirts to 
restrain us from touching the coffin. Only when the lid is on and the 
last nail is finally hammered can we secretly utter a sigh of relief. 

We used to treat every funeral like a contest. There were lead wail- 
ers and backup wailers, and after the gig was over, members would get 
together and critique one another's performances. Having loud voices 
is not enough. You need to know how to perform properly. For example, 
the chanting of poems involves a well-coordinated combination of 
appealing introductions, smooth transitions, high crescendos, and 
strong endings. While performing, you have to control and, sometimes, 
let go of yourselt. Your face, your hands, and your shoulders — every 
part of your body movement is important. When wailing, we chant 
stanzas like “You have worked so diligently all your life” or “How could 
you leave us just when our good days have started?,” et cetera. Those 
are our librettos. We would critique the performance of each stanza so 
the wailer could improve in the future. 

Wailing is more difficult than playing the suona or singing an opera 
aria. It’s acting, but with such subtlety that people don’t realize that 
you re acting. And, in the old days, it was key to our survival. From lay- 
ing the body in the coffin to the wake, from sealing the coffin to the 
burial, each time the relatives were brought face-to-face with the 
deceased, there was a climax of emotional outbursts, and the amount 
of income we could earn from a gig depended on how well we did with 
the wailing. 

liao: I would assume that people in your profession would always have 

Li: I used to think so, too. In the 1940s, the Communists and the Nation- 
alists were fighting a civil war. Refugees flooded my hometown like 
tidal waves. Unlike those refugees who ran away from danger, we 



rushed to places where there were deaths. Like musicians in the 
nineties, performers at that time also formed troupes or bands. My dad 
was a troupe leader. He used to be a Henan folk-song and opera singer; 
my teacher belonged to a different band. In those years, when China’s 
central region was embroiled in wars, people lived in total misery, and 
roadside robbers and army deserters abounded. Nobody was in the 
mood for operas. In a desperate attempt to survive, my teacher sug- 
gested merging his band with my dad’s. Their logic was that folks who 
were alive could live without going to concerts or operas, but they had 
to hold funerals for the dead. My dad didn’t know how to play the 
suona, but he had a loud tenor voice. When he yelled, he could be 
heard miles away. As a former opera singer, memorizing over ten wail- 
ing tunes was a piece of cake for him. 

But it wasn't an easy start for us in Sichuan. People used to hire 
local bands to perform at funerals. Rich households would hire both a 
local opera troupe and a group of chanting monks to send off the spirit 
of the dead. In the city of Chengdu, it was impossible for us to break 
in. We retreated and traveled down to the Mianyang region. We 
couldn’t get any gigs there either. It was the same situation when we 
got to Jiangyou County. We decided to settle down temporarily in a 
poor village about six miles away from the township. To survive, we 
searched for all sorts of odd jobs just hoping to get three meals a day. 

In 1948, an epidemic hit this region. Dead bodies were lying every- 
where on the roadside. The epidemic saved our troupe. As you know, 
disease is an equal opportunity hitter, striking both the rich and the 
poor. Many of the local funeral bands were quite small, more like a 
family business, a couple of individuals who would bring their suona to 
a funeral and do a simple performance. There was no way they could 
compete with a large troupe like ours. Besides, northerners like us 
were bigger, taller, and stronger. After a while, our troupe pretty much 
monopolized the businesses of weddings and funerals. When we 
played the suona, we showed better stamina than those tubercular 

But each region was controlled by triad gangs or bandits. If you 
crossed paths with them and snatched their business, you could end 
up with a number of stab holes in your belly. Who dared to take busi- 
ness from them? We couldn’t even afford to pay protection money. So, 
after losing their iron rice bowls to us, local suona players and profes- 

The Professional Mourner 7 

sional mourners rallied together and enlisted help from a local triad 
leader, called Red Flag Five. This guy ran a teahouse in Qinglian Town- 
ship. Red Flag Five sent us a message: either we moved our ass out of 
his territory, or he’d have someone break our legs and throw us out. 

Luckily, we were pretty well-known in the area. There was a local 
landowner whose family were Buddhists. His nickname was Mediator 
Zhang. He went, begging for mercy on behalf of us, and offered twenty 
pieces of silver. With a little bribe, Red Flag Five backed down a bit. 
He proposed the idea of staging a one-on-one contest. My dad asked: 
How can we stage a competition when there are no dead bodies and 
funerals? The triad leader said: That’s easy. 

The next morning, when we got up and opened the door, we stum- 
bled on the corpse of a beggar, right in front of our house. So we treated 
the beggar as if he were a big shot and prepared a big ceremony. We 
purchased a coffin, embalmed the corpse, and dressed him up in fancy 
clothes. We then carried the open coffin to the township square. Then, 
both sides began to build their separate stages with the mutually 
agreed terms. Local suona players, professional mourners, and their 
relatives raised a large sum of money, and paid big bucks to hire some 
prestigious players, ready to fight us to the bitter end. 

Within half a day, both stages were set up. The two stages, standing 
opposite each other, were almost fifteen meters above the ground. The 
open coffin was sitting between them. The grand contest attracted 
people from villages over a hundred kilometers away. This was the first 
time ever, since the legendary Pangu created the world, that suona 
players and professional funeral wailers were dueling for territory. 

The contest started with the suona. Both sides played the same 
tune, “The Ultimate Grief. ’About several meters away from the stage 
sat the judges and audience. In the front row were the head of the triad 
and his lackeys, the county security chief, local celebrities, and rich 
gentry. 1 was young and competitive, and decided to mount the stage to 
start the first round, but my teacher pulled me down. He was in his 
fifties, but still strong and energetic. He wore a black mourning outfit 
with a white headband, which was quite dazzling under the sun. He 
held the suona between his teeth, grabbed the hanging ladder, and 
with a few big steps he climbed up to the stage. 1 could see that his 
opponent was also getting ready on the other side. 

A guy in the audience waved a white flag and yelled, “Start!” Music 



flew out of both players. For a while, the tunes were sharp as a knife 
stabbing peoples hearts. Both players were veterans, very experienced. 
Half an hour into the contest, it was still hard to declare a winner. At 
the height of the competition, those with observant eyes could proba- 
bly see traces of saliva mixed with blood flying out of my teacher's 
suona. My dad looked very calm. He knew very well that my teacher 
had good stamina and was quite stubborn. He would never acknowl- 
edge defeat. His parents used to call him Mule Head. About an hour 
later, his opponent began to show signs of fatigue and was gasping for 
breath. Victory was on the horizon. Suddenly, I saw my teacher’s suona 
snap into two and the guy at the podium flash his white flag. Oh, we 
were finished. I looked back at the stage and noticed that my teacher’s 
mouth was covered with blood. It turned out that someone had used a 
slingshot to sabotage him. 

1 reacted fast, without much thinking, 1 grabbed the ladder, and the 
next thing I knew, I was on the stage. My dad was also trying to get on, 
but the stage couldn't support that many people, and began to sway 
from side to side. I screamed at my teacher: Teacher, please get off fast. 
At that moment, the other troupe’s members rallied around the stage 
and blocked Dad’s way. He had to give up and stomped his feet, yelling: 
That little bastard, get off the stage. You are asking for death. Before he 
even finished, 1 saw another contestant from the opponent’s camp 
stepping onto the stage opposite me. 

It was time for the wailing contest. 

My opponent kicked his feet, pounded his chest with his fist, and 
uttered a thunderous wailing, like a cornered ox. The audience 
responded with waves of "Bravo." I thought. We’re done! 1 thought 
about my teacher who was wounded and had lost the contest. I 
thought about my dad who couldn’t possibly survive this defeat. We 
had been forced to leave our homes and travel thousands of kilometers, 
trying to bring laughter to those who were alive and wail for those who 
were dead. Now we ended up in such a terrible situation, getting bul- 
lied by the locals. When would we see the end -of our misery? This rit- 
ual for this deceased beggar could kill our band. What were we going to 
do? How were we going to survive? If I was not allowed to play the 
suona, begging seemed to be the only alternative left. Someday, I could 
end up with the same fate as the beggar in the coffin. 

The more 1 thought about it, the more despondent I became. The 
more I thought about it, the more suicidal I became. I burst into tears. 

The Professional Mourner g 

I opened my eyes wide, staring at the sky, at the blaring sun, without 
blinking. I lost all my senses. I couldn’t see anything or hear anything. I 
wailed my heart out. I kept punching myself on the chest and then 
reached my fists into the sky, as if I were wrestling for life with the 
Heavenly God. Then the person with the slingshot aimed at me. All 1 
could hear was hang, and my head was hurting and spinning. 1 tried to 
keep my face upward. As long as my face was not bleeding, I would 
continue to wail. When the white flag flashed several times to signal 
my victory, l didn't even notice it. Later on, I was told that my opponent 
lost his voice way before 1 did. I still kept on for more than ten more 
minutes, bringing down tears in the crowds, who began to join and wail 
in a loud chorus. Even those triad guys had misty eyes. They were 
heard sighing: We have treated those out-of-towners unfairly. It’s so 
sad. It’s so sad to see that kid on the stage. 

liao: During Mao Zedong’s Smashing the Four Old Elements cam- 
paign, in the time of the Cultural Revolution, after the Great Leap For- 
ward, were you still allowed to perform? 

Li: I've never changed professions, but I have changed the tunes I play. 
While celebrating China’s liberation, everyone loved folk tunes and 
folk dances. Our funeral troupe turned around and began to play in 
unison, "The Sky in the Communist Regions Is Brighter.” We per- 
formed similar revolutionary tunes during the ensuing political cam- 
paigns. Singing and performing helped to mobilize the masses. 
Whatever tunes the leaders wanted us to play, we followed orders. Per- 
formers like us were happy if we were fed three meals a day and given 
a comfortable bed at night. We seldom harbored any discontent or 
anger. Let me tell you, during the three-year famine, as waves and 
waves of people died of starvation, I continued to play rosy tunes, prais- 
ing peace and prosperity. I guess after you act at funerals for too long, 
you become heartless. In this world, one shouldn't be too hot-blooded. 
Today, the Party allows you to speak your mind and has relaxed its polit- 
ical control, so you feel encouraged and excited. But if you get too car- 
ried away, the Party will send you to labor camps. Then you end up 
living with your tail tucked between your legs in the camps for ten or 
twenty years. 

liao: Your troupe disbanded, didn't it? 


Li: We broke up in 1951. Since then, I followed the example of many 
local suona players: doing farmwork during the daytime, and moon- 
lighting when opportunity arose. Whenever someone got married, had 
babies, or died, people in the region would come get me because I was 
pretty well-known. Someone suggested that I form a new troupe and 
look for gigs. I gave it some careful thought and then said, “Uh-uh, no." 
If I had a troupe, it would be considered a nongovernmental organiza- 
tion. Which government agency would it fall under? I wasn’t aware of 
any, and in that case my troupe could be considered an illegal organiza- 
tion. If you were labeled illegal, you could be charged with counterrev- 
olutionary activities. I wanted to avoid that. 

I did have some auspicious years, but they seem to be so far away 
now. Immediately after China started its economic reforms in the late 
1970s, my fortune changed. The old traditions were revived, and I 
became popular for a little while. But it didn't last long. Nowadays, 
people no longer follow the traditional practice of having suona music 
during weddings and funerals. Fewer and fewer invitations come my 
way. Country folks follow urban fads very quickly. Young people in the 
cities watch too many Hong Kong and Western movies. They begin to 
imitate everything in the movies. People no longer go through the kow- 
tow ceremonies. Of course, country folks can t afford a Western-style 
wedding, but with a single phone call, they can easily rent a big limou- 
sine. That is much more grandiose than the traditional red bridal sedan 
chair followed by a band of suona players. 

I have to stay away from the urban areas and try to find opportuni- 
ties in the remote mountainous regions. It’s really hard because you 
can never plan anything. Plus, I m getting old. Traveling is no longer an 
easy task. I used to have several apprentices, but they have all given up 
and changed jobs. Young fellow, playing the suona in the old days was 
never considered a degrading profession. Rich kids might have looked 
down on us, but they were notoriously phony. Actually, the pioneer and 
founder of this profession was his holiness, Confucius. In his early 
years, he played the suona to support his mother. He performed at 
funerals, dressed in mourner’s outfits made from white linens. He was 
also a professional wailer and coffin bearer. That’s why you see the por- 
traits of Confucius or his memorial tablets in many suona players 

We are in a different era. Not so many people want to learn how to 
play the suona. Nowadays, once a tent for the wake is set up, relatives 

The Professional Mourner u 

immediately pull out several mah-jongg tables and play gambling 
games all night long. The mourners are more preoccupied with win- 
ning games than with the deceased. People are not what they used to 
be. They don’t even bother to pretend to-be sorrowful. 

liao: What about funerals? The suona tunes still make the ceremonies 
more touching. 

Li: You seem to be out of touch with the current market economy. My 
village has easy access to modern transportation. When a person 
passes away, a family just has to make a phone call. A company special- 
izing in funeral preparations will show up right away, offering a wide 
range of services from wreath rentals to the organizations of wakes and 
funeral processions. They call it one-stop service. In the old days, fam- 
ilies invited monks to chant mantras to pave the way for the dead to 
cross to another world. Suona music accompanied the wailing of the 
devoted children. Nowadays, deaths are considered festival occasions 
here. People host pop concerts during the wake. Friends and relatives 
will fight for the opportunity to order songs on behalf of the deceased. 
These can be any kind of pop songs. Sometimes mourners use a popu- 
lar song and change a couple of lyrics to make it fit the occasion. Peo- 
ple go crazy over that. As for the funeral procession, the children and 
relatives of the deceased are no longer required to carry the coffin. Peo- 
ple use cars or limos. Western instruments lead the procession. With 
loudspeakers, the funeral music can be heard miles away and everyone 
knows that a person has just died. 

liao: You know so much about funerals. I used to hear my grandpa tell 
stories about “walking the corpse. " Is it true that this was a profession, 
and people used to pay those professionals large sums of money to 
transport home the body of someone who died hundreds or thousands 
of miles away? 

Li: Correct. In the old days, there were people who specialized in walk- 
ing the corpse. They normally traveled in the evenings, two guys at a 
time. One walked in the front and the other at the back. Like carrying 
a sedan chair, they pulled the body to walk along, as fast as wind. They 
would utter in unison, “Yo ho, yo ho.” 

If you looked from a distance, you would see that the dead and the 



living march to the same steps. They used gravity to keep the corpse 
walking to the same rhythm. It was hard for the trio to change gait and 
make a turn, never a sharp turn. If you happened to see a walking 
corpse coming, you got out of the way. Otherwise, it could walk right 
into you. 

I saw this in 1949. A local merchant was accidentally shot by a 
group of army deserters in Jiangxi Province. This merchant’s name was 
Lu. I helped arrange his funeral. At that time, there was no easy means 
of water or land transportation to bring his body back home. His 
friends couldn't bear to bury him in another land. They paid money to 
those professionals to get his body home. It took them over a week, and 
when they got there his body looked as if he were alive. 

Since most of these corpse walkers slept during the daytime, young 
people like me were quite curious. I licked a small hole in the window 
paper, and checked what was in their room. It was pitch-dark. All I 
could hear was the thunderous snoring. A guy called Xiao Wu wanted 
to sneak in and steal the wand used by the corpse walkers. We all 
wanted to see if there was any magic to it. But the moment he stealth- 
ily opened the door, a dark shadow jumped right onto him. It was a 
black cat. 

Corpse walkers always brought a cat with them wherever they 
went. Before they set off, they would move the corpse, which was 
standing against the wall, the same way they would open a door. They 
would then carefully move the corpse outside, and support it from the 
front and the back. After that, a cat would climb all over the corpse 
three or four times. They called it “electric shock.” The three of them 
would march in unison on the same spot for a while, just like an army 
exercise. Then they began to move with “Yo ho, yo ho.” 

liao: I still don’t know what to believe. 

Li: It’s a true story. 


Abducting or trafficking in women is a criminal trade that has 
a long history in China. In the old days, this 'profitable business 
was controlled by crime syndicates — the triads — which lured 
rural girls and women with offers of nice jobs in big cities, then 
sold them into brothels at a high price. After the Communist 
revolution in 1949, the government eliminated the triads in 
many parts of China. The business of domestic human traffick- 
ing has now been largely taken over by country bumpkins like 
Qian Guibao, whom I visited at a detention center in the city of 
Chongqing. I interviewed him for over two hours; since I was 
not allowed to bring any recording equipment into the prison, I 
had to write up the interview from memory. 

liao yiwl 1 : You look like an honest hick. How did you end up in this 

qian guibao: My experience was nothing unique. 1 was a peasant in 
River Valley Village in Pinggu County, Sichuan Province. Have you 
heard of Pinggu, home of the famous pandas? In the old days, the 
mountain next to our village was covered with lush forests and pro- 
vided us with everything we needed for a living. We would pick up the 
timber left by the lumber mills and sell it. It was pretty good money. In 
addition, the mountain was rich in many natural food resources. But as 
the demand for lumber increased, the trees disappeared fast. Soon the 
forest was gone. The lumber factory closed, we had no more leftover 
timber to sell, and it was impossible to plant crops on the bare, defor- 
ested mountains. You probably haven t visited my hometown, but you 
can’t make a living there as a peasant. Before I turned twenty-eight, I 
had violated the one-child family planning policy because my wife had 
given birth to three girls. I couldn’t even afford to buy pants for them. 

Everyone else in the village was pretty much in the same situation. 



Men would wear pants made from dry grass when working in the field. 
They left their real pants at home, saving them for holidays and special 
occasions. In the wintertime, women and girls would be stark naked, 
huddling next to the stove to do housework. We led miserable lives 
until 1992, when a couple of young guys in the village decided to take 
the leather goods that many families had saved for years and sell them 
at the local market. With the money we got, we bought ourselves bus 
tickets and left the village. At first we found construction jobs in the 
county, and then we followed a contractor all the way to the northwest- 
ern province of Gansu. We soon gave up the hard labor jobs and 1 
began to go from village to village, doing some small retail business. It 
was quite an eye-opening experience. 

Northwestern China is enormous. In many places, there’s nothing 
but barren desert. It was even hard to get drinking water. Locals would 
keep the snow in a big pond and the melting snow provided them with 
drinking water foi half a year. In these villages, the men were honest 
and kind. They loved their women and followed them around. Since 
most families prefer boys to girls, there weren t too many women in the 
region. Young men would spend years pinching pennies so they could 
use all their savings to find a woman to marry. I felt so sorry for them. 
Each time they saw a woman, their eyes would brighten up with lust, 
ready to mount her and luck her immediately. 

My hometown in Sichuan was pretty poor, but I hadn't seen any 
men as desperate as these. As you know, the Sichuan women have a 
reputation for being industrious, good-looking, and nice to their men. 
Guys in the northern provinces love women from Sichuan. With that in 
mind, I saw a moneymaking opportunity. 

liao: What was your first experience like? 

Qian: I couldnt sell anybody, so I married two of my daughters to two 
guys in a village in Gansu Province. My in-laws were considered rela- 
tively rich in the area. I received six hundred yuan and eight sheep. I 
sold the sheep to a peasant at the train station for fifty yuan each. So I 
ended up getting a thousand yuan [about $120]. I had never felt so rich. 

I was exhilarated beyond control. But a couple of days later, my daugh- 
ters told me that they had met a few other Sichuan wives in the village. 
Those women were brought to the village by human traffickers, and 

The Human Trafficker 15 

guess the price those bastards asked for each woman: over two thou- 
sand yuan each. Basically, I lost money in the deal. Damn. 

liao: You sent your daughters to a faraway place and married them off to 
strangers for money? 

qian: What do they know about happiness? My daughters are the chil- 
dren of a poor peasant. As long as their husbands have dicks, that’s all I 
care. The more often women get laid, the prettier they look. Of course 
with some women, after they give birth to a couple of kids, their looks 
are gone forever. 

liao: How did you manage to expand your business? 

qian: I realized that I could be pretty charming. When I started out, I 
was a little nervous and lacked confidence. I tried to do some honest 
business as a matchmaker for the women in my village. But it was 
really tough. I ran my tongue nonstop and talked up a storm, but my 
success rate was very low. Women growing up in the mountains had 
never left their native villages before. It was difficult to show up out of 
the blue and convince them to leave home and travel thousands of 
miles to marry a stranger. They wouldn't do it even when I threatened 
to kill their parents. 

I had no other alternative but to entice them with beautiful lies. 
First I told them that I was running a restaurant in the north and 
recruiting waitresses to help out. I promised to pay them decent wages 
and cover their food and accommodations. Those lies didn’t fly. So I 
came up with some new ideas. I had some fake identification cards 
made and claimed that I was recruiting workers for a textile factory in 
the north. I told the women that wool was cheap in Gansu since cows 
and sheep were abundant; it was an ideal location for the manufacture 
of sweaters and rugs. I told all sorts of lies, and finally some of them 
worked. Soon I became bolder and bolder. I set up contacts in several 
major cities in the northwest. My job was to transport the “goods” to a 
certain location, and my contacts would "distribute” them to the villages. 

Practice made perfect. My tongue became as slick as if it were 
soaked in oil, and I could easily lure a real goddess from heaven into 
marrying a human on earth. There were many women who would swal- 


low my crap like it was the most nutritious food they ever ate. If 
they believed in my crap and ended up getting sold, it served them 

liao: You were trading human flesh. 

qian: Comrade, that is certainly not a nice way to describe it. I didn’t 
run a brothel. 

liao: Have you ever forced innocent women into prostitution? 

qian: A virtuous woman will never prostitute herself, no matter how 
hard you force her. But most women are just like men. They crave 
adventures and love easy money. It's true that I sold over twenty women 
in the past five years, but those women came to me on their own. I 
didn’t threaten them with a gun. I wasn’t a bandit or kidnapper. You 
didn’t even have to use dirty tricks to lure them. There are so many 
poor bachelors in the north. 1 provided a service that linked those love- 
birds thousands of miles apart. The beginning of their relationships 
might not sound too auspicious or tender. Sometimes the brides want 
to commit suicide. But after their initial reluctance or rebellious pro- 
tests, most of them ended up accepting their fate. As time went by, 
their lives became better and more harmonious. 

As for being tied up and beaten, it is quite normal in the country- 
side. A man cannot be considered a good man if he doesn’t beat his 
wife or if he is too old to pick up a cane. Once, my wife and I were car- 
rying some corn back from the field. I became so horny and wanted to 
have sex with her. She said she was having her period and that I’d at 
least have to wait until dark. I wouldn't give up and insisted that I fuck 
her in the daylight. She then said she was too tired, and didn't want to 
take off her pants. I got mad. Before I had the chance to grab a wooden 
pole and force her to strip, she bolted out the door. I chased after her. 
She jumped in the village pond, attempting to drown herself. Ha! Guess 
what? The water was only waist deep. She began to cry and scream 
when her body didn’t sink. 

Oh well, those girls that I transported to the northwest had much 
better luck than my wife. As the saying goes: Beatings and quarrels 
make good couples. I'm just trying to supply what the market needs. 

The Human Trafficker 17 

liao: You deceived those women and tricked them into the business. 
You ruined their lives. 

qian: I was also trying to provide a solution to a problem that the Chi- 
nese government faced. In some northern regions, there are too many 
bachelors. The regional climate is too dry and people are poor. Sooner 
or later, there will be disturbances. By taking women over there, 1 bal- 
anced the yin and yang. This helps dissolve young guys’ sexual tension. 
As you know, the matchmaking service in the city collects fees. I was in 
the same business. Actually, if you deducted the cost of train fare, food, 
and other miscellaneous stuff, there wasn't much left as profit. Some- 
times, after I negotiated with my contacts in the north and sent the girl 
over, the village bachelor would change his mind because he couldn’t 
afford the fee. We’d have to sell her at a cheaper price. 

liao: Didn’t you worry about bad karma? 

qian: Bad karma? That’s such bullshit. If you read newspapers nowa- 
days, you will constantly come across stories about how someone 
became enlightened and has finally come to realize the true value of 
life, blah blah blah. The so-called “value of life” is nothing more than 
not having to worry about money. When someone earns money without 
working hard, he begins to bullshit about the value of life. Just like a 
pop singer, who only needs to open his or her mouth, sing a couple of 
songs, and the money pours in like crazy. That's why everyone adores 
pop stars and models. I’m a peasant. Nobody envies the life of a peasant. 

I admit that I lied to them and used deception. But in this world 
today, could you tell me a person who has not lied to get what they 
want? The only honest beings are animals, such as stupid pigs. 

liao: For victims of human smuggling, there is no such thing as a tradi- 
tional wedding. In many cases. I’m told, the guy’s parents hire some fel- 
low villagers to tie up the girl immediately after the human trader 
hands her over and then the groom rapes her. 

qian: Rape? These guys are having sex with their wives. You can’t call 
that rape. Of course, you're a city guy. You can meet girls at nightclubs 
or dance parties, or even at train stations. There are so many ways for 


boys and girls to meet in the city. If you re a shy guy, you can always join 
a government-run matchmaking service, or place a personal ad in the 
paper. If it doesn t work out with one date, you can meet someone else. 
Poor folks in the countryside are not so lucky. As for weddings, accord- 
ing to the local tradition, as long as you have a ceremony, with drums 
and horns, and invite everyone to a banquet, you are considered hus- 
band and wife. Country folks have been following these traditions for 
generations. They never follow the so-called “legal procedures.” Law 
just doesn t apply in those regions. 

liao: Well, the law applies to you. Are you going to get the death 

Qian: I actively cooperated with the prosecution and they reduced my 
sentence to life imprisonment. I accepted the verdict and pleaded 
guilty. But I still can't accept the charges— that I’ve harmed the general 
public or caused lots of trouble for the government. 

liao: Is your human trafficking group still in business? 

qian: We used to have over ten people. Now, seven are here in this jail. 
Those guys working in the northwest were thrown into local jails. The 
two group leaders have been executed. I wasn’t listed as a top criminal 
because I merely organized the goods and didn’t abuse any of the 
women. I persuaded my colleagues not to touch the goods because 
northerners are pretty conservative people. They want the goods in 
their original packages. They want to see blood on their wedding night. 
Once you deflower the girl, you can’t get a decent price. 

liao: Did you only target women from the poorest villages? 

qian: Mostly, but one time I managed to talk some university graduates 
into the deal. One of them was working on her doctoral degree at a 

liao: With that ugly face of yours? 

qian: Damn right. I acted very sophisticated. With those intellectuals, 
\ou could never use the lies you d use to recruit for small companies or 

The Human Trafficker 19 

textile factories. They would see through your tricks right away. I 
dropped all my masks. I told them I was a peasant from a fairly well-off 
region, which was covered with fruit trees and thick forests, an uncul- 
tivated Shangri-la. When it comes to bragging about the abundant nat- 
ural resources of the countryside, I’m an expert. It didn’t take long for 
the female college students to change their minds. Then, I pretended 
to seek their advice on how to do business. I told them that my village 
desperately needed some educated folks to go help cultivate the natu- 
ral resources. I invited one of the Ph.D. students to visit my village so 
she could refer more students to help my village do business. I told her 
we would hire college students and pay them high salaries. She fell for 
it so easily. I've got a remarkably slick tongue. Unfortunately, once you 
snatch those educated women, they can be a handful. One girl was 
locked up in a cell for over a week, but still wouldn't cave in to our 

liao: If I were the judge, I would first cut off your tongue as punish- 
ment. It deserves to be cut off. 


Zhou Minggui has handled human waste for almost all of his 
life, first as an employee of the state in charge of cleaning pub- 
lic toilets, and now as an independent restroom manager under 
contract with the city government of Chengdu to manage a 
large public restroom in the northwestern part of the city. “ It’s 
serious business," says Zhou. He’s about seventy years old, but 
he looks pretty energetic. 

I had known of Zhou for quite some time. His restroom 
stands almost next door to my mother's teahouse. But we were 
simply nodding acquaintances. One night last year, I sum- 
moned up enough courage to get over my concerns about losing 
my social status as an intellectual, and started a conversation 
with him. 

zhou minggui: Are you coming in to use the toilet or not? It’s already 
past midnight. Based on our rules, I need to charge you extra. How else 
can I pay my taxes to the city’s Environment and Hygiene Department? 
But since you're a regular client, I'll waive the extra charge. 

liao yiwu: Grandpa Zhou, I'm not here to use the restroom. I want to 
take you out for tea. 

zhou: You don’t have to bother. I’m only a public restroom guard. 

liao: Let’s go over to the teahouse. 

zhou: You are too nice. Is your mom’s teahouse still open? Actually, 
the more her customers drink, the better for my business. When 
their bladders are full, they come to my place. It’s called ‘‘mutually 

The Public Restroom Manager 


liao: In this world, there are rich people and poor people, aristocrats 
and common folks. But when it comes to the call of nature, everyone’s 
equal. Even the emperor has to take a shit. 

zhou: I have never seen a royal family member taking a shit. If they did, 
they wouldn’t come to do it in this public restroom. Hey, you're a writer, 
you like to collect material for your articles. Did you know there was an 
attempted murder here not long ago? About two days ago, a guy was 
chasing a young woman and she ran into this restroom. I tried to stop 
the guy at the door but couldn t. All the female customers were startled 
and began to scream. I sent my son to break it up, but the man took a 
knife out of his pocket. Nobody dared move. The guy seized the young 
woman, and was about to slash her face. She went to her knees, beg- 
ging for mercy. 

You know, in many public restrooms, the fertilizer companies put 
plastic containers near the urinals to collect urine. I grabbed one of 
these containers and splashed its contents all over the guy. That 
stopped him. He was soaked. Later on, someone called the police and 
they took both the man and the woman away. Guess what happened 
the next day? I saw the man and woman walking on the street, hugging 
and kissing like lovers. I tried to dodge them, but they came up to me. 
The guy pointed his fingers at my nose: You motherfucker, how dare 
you pour all that pee on me? 

I didn’t reply. He continued swearing at me: You fucker, why didn’t 
you mind your own damn business? Look what you did. My whole 
body smells like piss. 

When I heard that, I lost it. I said: If I hadn't poured the urine, 
you d have killed someone! 

Then — I couldn’t believe it — his girlfriend started to defend him: 
So what if he killed me? It had nothing to do with you. You’re the stink- 
ing public restroom manager. We’ve been dating for almost three years. 
Hes tried to kill me over ten times, but I’ve survived. Why call the 
police? We got detained yesterday and our families had to bail us out. 
When they saw us, they all covered their noses. Our neighbors laughed 
at us. Weve come back to seek compensation for our emotional 
trauma. Nowadays, everyone in China talks about the rule of law. 
We’re going to sue you. 

My son was incensed and got into a terrible argument with them. 



He grabbed a copper ladle and was ready to fight. I tried to hold him 
back, but that bitch jumped out in the street and screamed murder. All 
hell broke loose. We got quite a crowd. What pissed me off was that 
the guy pointed at my son in front of the crowd and said: Did you just 
use that ladle to stir up the shit in the latrine? You're a born toilet 
cleaner. You even use a shit ladle as a murder weapon. So insulting! 
That was no shit ladle. It was for cooking. My son threw it at them. The 
people in the crowd thought it was covered with shit and ran away as 
fast as they could. 

Let me tell you, there’s never been any shortage of these scoundrels 
in our city. They don’t have any jobs, they just hang out on the street 
and make trouble. This jerk I was telling you about still shows up at my 
restroom now and then. He always teases me: Since you’re not too 
well-off and pinching pennies here, I won’t seek any economic com- 
pensation for what you did to me. In return for our kindness, why don’t 
you allow me and my girlfriend to use the restroom free for one year. 

liao: He does sound like a jerk. 

zhou: Yeah, but I’m not mad anymore. What goes around comes 
around. In the future, even if someone falls into the latrine, I won’t pull 
him out. When I used to work as a latrine cleaner, I liked to go out of 
my way to help people. Sometimes, people used to make fun of me and 
call me the Shit Samaritan. Well, it took me half a month to go through 
the various bureaucratic hoops before I could obtain the contract to 
run this restroom. All I’m going to do from now on is guard the toilets 
and collect the entrance fee. 

If I had been born ten years later, I would never have thought to 
make a living in the restroom business. When I was young, you didn’t 
have to pay to answer the call of nature. All public restrooms were 
under the supervision of the municipal Environment and Hygiene 
Department. Later the department assigned each public restroom to 
its nearby street committee. The street committee then asked the local 
residents to take care of the restrooms themselves. In the end, nobody 
was taking responsibility for their maintenance and they got dirty. 
When it rained, the street flooded with human waste, and cars couldn't 
even drive through. When the sun was out, the human waste dried up, 
and the moist stink could bring tears to your eyes. There are still a cou- 

The Public Restroom Manager 23 

pie of free restrooms like that in the city, in the old residential areas. 
But nowadays, most public restrooms have been renovated and it’s a 
good business. 

As you know, houses built before the 1970s didn’t have indoor 
plumbing systems. People had to rely on public restrooms. Sometimes, 
they had to walk quite far. At night, families had to use chamber pots. 
In the old days, chamber pots painted in red were popular items for 
bridal showers or dowries. A sturdy chamber pot could last over ten 
years. In the old days, every morning, families used to dump their 
chamber pots into the public restrooms or wait for the human-waste 
truck. Those trucks were more punctual than public buses. While 
waiting for the truck, people chatted and caught up with one another 
over the day’s gossip. It was quite harmonious. 

liao: You sound nostalgic. 

zhou: Yes. I used to drive a human-waste truck. Nobody looked down 
on me because I was handling shit. My clients called me Master Zhou. 
In those days, peasants didn’t have access to fertilizers, so human 
waste was quite precious. There were even people who stole shit from 
the latrines. Sometimes, they would get caught and the street commit- 
tee would detain their carts. People in that era had no sense of money. 
There was no such thing as a fine. All they wanted from those shit 
thieves was a soul-searching self-criticism. During the Cultural Revo- 
lution in the 1960s, they would blame the capitalists for poisoning their 
minds and making them steal. The punishment for stealing human 
waste was to recite Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. 

liao: Wasn't that a bit much? Stealing shit wasn’t a serious crime, 
was it? 

zhou: China’s a socialist country. In theory, everything belongs to the 
government. In the old days, the waste we collected every morning was 
sent to a collective farm called the Red and Bright Commune, which is 
famous in our region because Chairman Mao visited it in 1957. They 
were really proud of that and they still display the plaque Mao gave 
them. Since the Red and Bright Commune was associated with Mao, 
and was used as a model for peasants in the rest of the country to emu- 


2 4 

late, we sent them only the top-quality human waste, to ensure bumper 
harvests each year. Each time we brought a shipment to the commune, 
we'd beat drums and gongs and decorate the trucks with red flowers. 
When they saw our trucks approaching, the peasants would hold large 
welcoming ceremonies. Many young students volunteered their time 
to help with the mission. 

liao: I did similar stuff when I was a kid. On weekends, we would pick 
horse manure off the street and donate it to the communes. Everybody 
was following Mao’s instructions to support agriculture. 

zhou: In our profession, our role model was Shi Chuanxiang, who was 
elected as a representative to the National People's Congress. He met 
Chairman Mao in person and had a picture taken with him. Everyone 
was excited that Mao would grant a public restroom cleaner like him 
such a high honor. We all tried to emulate him. Of course, we didn’t 
have toilet bowls then like we do today. The structure of the public 
bathroom was quite simple: a wooden platform with many holes in it 
was laid on top of a pit. The people squatted and relieved themselves 
through the holes. Every morning, a tube drained the waste from the 
pit into the truck. One day, the tube was blocked. When I went to 
investigate, I saw that a fetus had got stuck there. 

liao: That s awful. Why didn’t the woman go to the abortion clinic? 

ZHOU: Young man, we’re talking about the 1970s. In the last decade peo- 
ple have become more relaxed about premarital sex. In those days, 
without a marriage certificate, a woman would never have the guts to 
go to the hospital for an abortion. Premarital sex was considered 
extremely shameful. If her company found out, the woman’s career 
would be ruined. The stigma would stay with her the rest of her life. 
As a result, many girls would secretly procure medicine and the pub- 
lic toilet was like an abortion clinic, a dumping ground for dead 
fetuses. Some girls took the wrong medicine and died. In China, life is 

liao: I understand that during the Cultural Revolution, professors were 
forced to clean the public bathrooms. 

The Public Restroom Manager 25 

zhou: Many professors and scholars were labeled counterrevolution- 
aries, and yes, they were assigned to clean toilets. For people like me 
who did this for a living, we suddenly found ourselves with nothing to 
do. 1 wanted to work, but the students belonging to the Red Guard 
groups wouldn't allow it. I still got paid, but I ended up staying at home 
all day long, sleeping and goofing around. Since I was used to doing 
hard labor every day, I got really bored. Sometimes, in the mornings 
and evenings, I would sneak out to the toilet to coach the professors on 
their technique. 

Considering how Chinese emperors slaughtered dissenting intel- 
lectuals in ancient times, I think Chairman Mao and the Communist 
Party were pretty merciful. Mao emphasized the importance of initiat- 
ing mind reform and reeducating scholars. He ordered intellectuals to 
engage in hard labor, and at the same time, encouraged working-class 
people to read hooks. Reading books was easy for us working-class 
folks. We enrolled in literacy classes, and took courses in history and 
politics. That was fun. But when you forced professors to clean toilets, 
they considered it a huge loss of status. On the surface they acted as 
obedient as dogs. But many of them couldn’t take it and hanged them- 
selves with their belts inside the toilet stalls. 

People thought it was tragic whenever a professor died while clean- 
ing the restroom. But I was born a restroom cleaner. If I have a sad life, 
nobody gives a damn. I think Confucius was right when he said, “All 
occupations are base. Only book learning is exalted.” 

liao: Your story triggers a lot of childhood memories. I still remember 
those hig, spacious public restrooms. We would play hide-and-seek in 
them. Sometimes, when we forgot to bring toilet paper, we would wipe 
our little asses along the edge of the wall. I constantly got scolded for 
that. But I have to say that the public restroom was my second class- 

zhou: What? You call the public restroom a classroom? 

liao: It was through a hole in the restroom that I saw female private 
parts for the first time. It was shocking and exciting. From another 
drawing on the wall, 1 learned about sexual intercourse. I couldn’t see 
the body clearly. There was only a sectional profile of a male and a 



female sexual organ stuck together. I was only eight years old. The only 
thing we studied in school was the chairman’s red books on the Com- 
munist revolutions. ! had never imagined that in Red China there were 
people who would draw such dirty pictures. I became indignant, took 
out my pencil, and wrote beside the picture: This is two counterrevolu- 
tionaries doing bad stuff. 

zhou: Were you one of those kids that does graffiti? That’s a bad habit. I 
just don’t understand it. 

liao: When I was in high school, I used to hate this girl whose name 
was Wang Xiaohong, because she was such a gossip. So I wrote on the 
bathroom wall: Wang Xiaohong is a whore. She sleeps with evil capital- 

zhou: You know, it takes me a long time to remove graffiti. It's more dif- 
ficult than sweeping the floors or even cleaning out the pit. And when 
I finally erase it, the minute I turn around, new graffiti appears. 
Restroom graffiti has been in existence since ancient times. The only 
exception was during the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards 
painted Communist slogans all over the place and didn’t leave enough 
room for graffiti artists. On the restroom walls, they printed slogans like 
Capitalists Are as Worthless as Shit or "Counterrevolutionaries 
Deserve to Eat Shit.’’ 

I m semiliterate so I can’t understand much of what people write 
there. Most of the time, the mere sight of graffiti makes me so mad that 
I dont even bother to read it. There are limericks, dirty drawings, vul- 
gar phrases, political slogans, and even paragraphs copied from pub- 
lished articles. 

liao: Those graffiti limericks were much more interesting than the ones 
we learned in school. I vividly remember one of them, “Love Songs 
from the Restroom. It goes like this: You are a bird flying in the sky, I'm 
a cockroach, in shit I thrive: You are flying in circles in the clouds. I’m 
doing somersaults in the shitty pond. 

zhou: You re a well-educated person. Why do you memorize vulgar lim- 
ericks like that? 

The Public Restroom Manager 27 

liao: Sorry to embarrass you. But think about it: there are well over a 
billion people in China. Only a few can get their writings published in 
newspapers and magazines, and you need to go through rigorous 
reviews and various levels of censorship. By the time your article gets 
to the paper, it no longer resembles what you originally wrote. Many 
people will never have an opportunity to express themselves in public. 
That’s why the public bathrooms have become the venue for free 

zhou: OK, I admit I saw a very funny one yesterday. It was a limerick to 
commemorate Chairman Mao. It was pretty easy to remember. It 
went: Chairman Mao, Chairman Mao, if you rise from your grave you 
will see embezzlers in raves. Chairman Mao, if you look to your right, 
hookers and druggies at your side. Chairman Mao, if you look to your 
left, fake goods are what you get. Chairman Mao, if you look behind 
your back, laid-off workers are deep in debt. Chairman Mao, if you 
look down, extramarital affairs are common. Chairman Mao, Chair- 
man Mao, close your eyes, out of sight, out of mind. People want their 
iron rice bowls back. 

liao: That sure captures the mood these days. But anyway, is your busi- 
ness good, Grandpa? 

zhou: Barely. Then again, so many people are unemployed here. I’m 
lucky to have a business. My monthly profits are about two hundred to 
three hundred yuan. I'm pretty content with that. And for an old guy 
like me, managing toilets is easy work. Life is tough and tiring. All my 
nerves are strained. One of these days, one of the nerves will snap, and 
then I’ll be gone. 


Stories of walking the corpse are popular in both northern and 
southern China. Most of the time, the tales are so dramatically 
exaggerated that one has to discard them as fiction. After Li 
Changgeng, a professional mourner, mentioned corpse walking 
in a previous intenhew, many readers wrote asking whether 
they were expected to believe Li’s description of corpse walking. 
1 myself thought it was half truth, half fiction, hut recently I 
heard the following story, which seemed to me quite convinc- 
ing. On the anniversary of my father's passing I traveled to Lum- 
ping in Sichuan, where my father was born and where his ashes 
are buried. After going through the rituals — burning incense, 
lighting firecrackers, and kowtowing in front of his grave — I 
paid a visit to Luo Tianwang, a feng shui master, who had 
selected my father’s grave site. Luo is an old family friend, now 
in his seventies. He looked healthy and energetic; his vision was 
still keen and his mind sharp, and we spoke for some time. 

LIAO yiwu : When I was growing up here, I constantly heard stories 
about corpse walking from our neighbor, Third Grandma Wang. She 
told me that people in Sichuan call the practice “yo shi.” While “shi" 
means dead body,’ the word "yo” is taken from “yo ho, yo ho,” the 
sounds that corpse walkers chant while they haul the dead body along. 
Do you think there is any truth to these stories? 

LUO TIANWANG: Sure. Corpse walking has never been an officially rec- 
ognized profession, but the practice had been around since ancient 
times. When I was young, I had several friends in the business of trad- 
ing salt. They used to travel by foot on dirt paths to the central 
provinces of Shaanxi and Henan. By the roadside they would some- 
times come upon shops that were closed and empty, with signs up say- 
ing “walking corpse across border." These signs were spooky — blowing 

2 9 

The Corpse Walkers 

in the cold wind on a deserted mountain road. When my friends told 
me about this, I said: When a person dies, he becomes stiff. How can 
he manage to cross the border? They didn’t know, and it wasn't until a 
couple of years later that I found out how it was done. 

liao: Corpses crossing borders? Did that mean the border that sepa- 
rates the worlds of the living and the dead? 

luo: No, it meant literally crossing the province or county borders. As I 
told you, transportation was not very well developed then. The so- 
called national highway was a rutted dirt road. When a traveling busi- 
nessman died of a sudden illness or accident, it was hard to transport 
the body back to his village to be buried in his native soil. And if a dead 
person is not returned to his hometown, as custom dictates, he would 
be called a lonely soul and a homeless ghost. So, since buses or trucks 
werent available, if the family could afford it, they hired professional 
corpse walkers. 

liao: But how could a corpse walk? Was there magic to it? I’ve heard 
that corpse walkers would have a black cat climb over the dead body, 
generating static electricity that would make the corpse move like a 

luo: That’s nonsense. 

liao: Have you ever seen someone walk a corpse? 

luo: Yes. In the early 1950s, the new Communist government sent a 
work team to launch the Land Reform movement, which took land 
from the rich and gave it to the poor. The work team categorized people 
according to their wealth and beliefs. Rich landowners and National- 
ists were deemed enemies of the people, and many were tortured or 
executed if they couldn’t first escape into the mountains or pay off the 
triads to protect them. Since three generations of my family had been 
in the feng shui business, we were considered practitioners of supersti- 
tion, and I wasn’t allowed to participate in the land redistribution activ- 
ities. I had nothing to do, and one dark and overcast afternoon I was 
strolling along the village road when a bulky, black object suddenly 


3 ° 

passed me, sending a chill down my spine. The thing was covered with 
a huge inky-colored robe. The bottom hem of the robe was splattered 
with mud, and from time to time a leather shoe poked out below. The 
footsteps were heavy and made a repetitive, thudding noise, like some- 
one knocking the ground with a block of wood. Just then, my friend 
Piggy scurried up to me and whispered in my ear: That’s a corpse. 

Piggy’s words spooked me, and I ran around in front of the robe. A 
man was there, walking a few paces ahead of the corpse, wearing a 
beige vest and carrying a basket filled with fake paper money. In his 
other hand, he held a white paper lantern. Every few minutes, he 
would reach into the basket, grab some money, and toss it high in the 
air. You know the ritual, don’t you? It’s called “buying your way into the 
other world.’ People in the countryside still believe that the fake 
money is used to bribe the corpse’s guardian ghosts so they don't block 
the road to heaven. 

liao: So people used to think the world of the dead was equally corrupt. 
But why the lantern in broad daylight? 

luo: To light the way to heaven. And the white lantern, the fake money, 
and the black robe helped create an atmosphere of mourning. The 
lantern also served a practical purpose — but let me finish my story. 
Piggy and I decided to keep following the corpse walker. The corpse 
looked a head taller than an ordinary person and wore a big straw hat. 
Beneath the hat was a white paper mask — one of those sad-looking 
masks like they wear in operas. The guy at the front would chant, “Yo 
ho, yo ho,” and strangely enough the corpse would cooperate just like a 
well-trained soldier. He followed the guide with great precision. For 
example, when the guide and the corpse were climbing some stone 
steps on the street, the guide said, “Yo ho, yo ho, steps ahead.” The 
corpse paused for a second, then moved up the stairway, step by step, 
with its body tilting back stiffly. Piggy and I followed the pair for about 
six or seven kilometers, all the way to a small inn on a quiet side street. 
While the corpse waited at the entrance, the guide walked into the 
lobby, tapped on the counter, and said in a low voice: The god of happi- 
ness is here. 

liao: What does that mean? 

3 ' 

The Corpse Walkers 

luo: Apparently it was a code phrase, because the innkeeper nodded 
and smiled and stepped out from behind the counter. He bowed to the 
guide and led him and the corpse to the back of the inn. We snuck into 
the backyard and found the corpse walker’s room because the guide 
had left the white lantern in front of the door. We tried to get closer but 
heard an angry shout from the innkeeper. He grabbed my coat sleeve 
and snarled: Get away, you little bastards. Don’t you dare tell anyone, 
got it? 

LIAO: Wasn't the innkeeper afraid of getting bad luck from accommodat- 
ing a corpse? 

luo: Because the corpse was wrapped up in a robe, no other customers 
would even suspect anything, and the local people actually considered 
corpse walkers auspicious, because death is the beginning of life in 
another world. I later found out that’s why a walking corpse was 
referred to as the god of happiness. There was even a saying: If the god 
of happiness comes to your inn, good fortune will follow. Of course, an 
innkeeper could charge three times as much for providing accommo- 
dation to corpse walkers. 

Anyway, despite the scolding from the innkeeper, Piggy and I didn’t 
want to leave. We hung around in the lobby. Soon the innkeeper 
returned from the back with a shiny silver dollar in his hand. That was 
a lot of money in those days — he couldn’t contain his excitement. 
When he noticed us, he called us over, handed us some small change, 
and told us to run to a restaurant down the street to get fried peanuts, 
cooked pig ears, pig tongues, and some hard liquor. We were also told 
to buy candles and fake paper money from a funeral-supply store. The 
innkeeper said the corpse walker needed to replenish his supplies for 
the next day’s trip. Strangely enough, the innkeeper specifically asked 
us to get two sets of bowls and chopsticks from the restaurant. He said 
one set was for the god of happiness. 

We ran our errands quickly, and the innkeeper thanked us pro- 
fusely. He tipped us a couple of coins and invited us to sit down with 
him for tea. He told us that over the past twenty years, he had accom- 
modated over ten corpse walkers who were passing through the region. 
We peppered him with questions. He lowered his voice to a whisper: 
It’s not the corpse that does the walking — it’s the living. Piggy and I 


didn’t understand. The innkeeper said the magic lies inside that black 
robe. But he wouldn't say anything else. Piggy said: We live in a new 
Communist era now. Corpse walking is a practice from the old society. 
It is now considered superstitious and illegal. There’s no need to keep 
it a secret from us. We won’t tell anyone. But if you don’t tell us, we ll 
report you to the officials for renting rooms to corpse walkers. After our 
begging, then our threatening, the innkeeper told us. 

liao: What’s the secret? 

luo: Inside the black robe, there are two bodies: the corpse and a living 
person who carries the dead one on his back. During the trip, the per- 
son who carries the corpse has to use two hands to secure the body so 
it doesn t slide off. As you probably know, the body of a dead person 
becomes as stiff and as heavy as a stone. It takes eight people to carry a 
coffin. Imagine how tough it would be for one person, wrapped up in a 
large black robe, to walk hundreds of miles with a dead body on his 
back. Since it is hard for him to bend his knees, each move must be 
very stiff and awkward. On top of that, the black robe prevents him 
from being able to see what is ahead of him. Remember the white 
lantern that we talked about earlier? The light from the lantern is used 
to guide the corpse carrier. 

liao: When does a corpse walker eat? 

LUO: Under normal circumstances, corpse walkers only eat one meal a 
day, and they travel ten to twelve hours without any rest. Since they 
work in pairs, they alternate days carrying the body. Sometimes a 
corpse walker's journey can take over a month. With such a long travel 
time, it is impossible to make the trip during the warm months because 
the corpse would decay in the heat. Even in winter, corpse walkers 
have to inject mercury and other anti-decaying solutions into the body. 
Since clients know how tough the business is, they’re willing to pay big 
money for the service. The innkeeper said people in the profession had 
to go through years of specialized physical training. They often had 
good kung fu skills and could defend themselves against roadside 

ar| d I were amazed when we heard all this. Piggy wanted to go 
to the backyard to check it out. The innkeeper stopped him, saying the 

The Corpse Walkers 


door was locked. I said: We can put our ears to the door and listen. The 
innkeeper pinched my ear: If they catch you, they will chop off your ear 
and serve it as cold cuts with their drinks. Corpse walkers are very pri- 
vate people. Once they get in the room, they never come out again till 
early in the morning when they set off. It was a slow night for the 
innkeeper, so we ended up chatting for quite a while. It was pitch- 
black outside when we finally left. He gave us a couple more coins and 
made us promise not to tell anyone what we’d seen. He said that if offi- 
cials knew that he was renting them a room, his business would be 
closed down. 

liao: That was it? 

luo: Be patient! I'm not finished. After I got home, I couldn't get to 
sleep. I was still haunted by images of the corpse walkers. The next 
morning, I was awakened by the sound of the village chief walking up 
and down the street banging a gong. He was calling an important meet- 
ing for the whole village. I jumped out of bed, grabbed my coat, and ran 
out into the drizzling rain, skipping breakfast. From all directions 
neighbors were coming out of their houses. 

As I got closer to the village square, I spotted Piggy. He pulled me 
aside and said in a muffled tone of voice: I have to tell you something. 
After we split up last night, I kept thinking about the stories the 
innkeeper told us. Something felt wrong to me. Chairman Mao told us 
to smash all superstitious practices. Well, those corpse walkers are 
engaging in superstitious activities — they’re counterrevolutionaries! I 
couldn’t let Chairman Mao down. I had to do something — otherwise, 
I’d be an accomplice. So I got up in the middle of the night, walked 
several miles to the county offices, and reported the corpse walkers to 
members of the Land Reform work team. They immediately contacted 
a unit of the People’s Liberation Army stationed nearby. 1 led the sol- 
diers and members of the work team to the inn. 

Piggy’s words made me really mad. I slapped him: You weren't sup- 
posed to do that. Didn't we promise the innkeeper to keep quiet? Piggy 
gave me a nasty look: What, you think I’d keep my mouth shut for just 
a couple of measly coins? 

liao: So much for the noble revolutionary reasons. It was all about 
money, wasn t it? 



luo: Not quite. In that era everyone wanted to gain favor with the new 
government. Piggy was just trying to be part of the group. With Piggy's 
help, soldiers armed with rifles burst into the inn and rounded up the 
innkeeper and his staff. They moved silently into the backyard, 
stopped in front of the corpse walkers’ room, and knocked on the door. 
There was no response. The soldiers had to bang on the door violently 
before they heard some rustling sounds from inside the room. Who is 
it? someone asked. That infuriated the soldiers and they broke down 
the door with their rifle butts. The soldiers jumped inside, waving their 
flashlights around the room. Piggy, who had witnessed the whole thing, 
told me that the two corpse walkers were standing in their underwear 
by the bed, shaking. The corpse, still covered in the black robe, was 
leaning against a wall. One soldier pulled up the robe and saw that it 
was the body of a woman, a rich lady — she had permed hair and heavy 
makeup, and she was dressed in an expensive, green silk cheongsam. 
Neither the village folks nor the soldiers had ever been that close to a 
rich lady before. Out of curiosity, some poked at her face, while others 
fingered the material of the dress. Her nose, ears, and mouth were 
filled with mercury and some kind of smelly liquid, but that didn't stop 
them from probing. 

The two corpse walkers raised their hands over their heads. The 
soldiers ordered them and the innkeeper to stand along the wall, side 
by side with the dead body. Since there was no electricity in those days, 
the soldiers lit the corpse walkers’ white paper lantern and began to ask 
them questions right there on the spot. Piggy said that the whole thing 
was pretty weird with the room lit so dimly. 

liao: Who were the corpse walkers? 

luo: They were brothers from Shaanxi Province. The older one was 
thirty-five, stocky and very muscular. The younger was thirty-one, thin- 
ner and taller. Their father had been in the profession for many years 
and was known in the region as Guijianchou — warrior that scares the 
ghost. The two brothers inherited the profession from him at an early 
age. They said they had tried to be farmers but gave it up because they 
couldn't make ends meet. When the soldiers pressed them for informa- 
tion regarding the dead woman, the two brothers looked at each other, 
shook their heads, and said it was a violation of their professional code 


The Corpse Walkers 

to disclose information about the dead. The soldiers slapped their faces 
and pointed their rifles at their heads, shouting: Chairman Mao 
teaches us, leniency toward those who confess and severe punishment 
for those who refuse to cooperate. Scared shitless, the brothers both 
fell to the floor and confessed everything. 

liao: Who was she? 

luo: The deceased was the wife of an officer in the Nationalist army. 
When the Nationalists were defeated, the officer and his wife ended 
up wandering from place to place. It was wintertime, and the wife 
caught pneumonia. On her deathbed she made her husband promise 
to return her body to her hometown for burial. He bought a wheelbar- 
row, put his wife’s body and two suitcases in it, and began pushing it 
along the winding mountain roads of Xishenba, where he met the two 
brothers. The weary officer promised to pay them a large sum of money 
if they would deliver his deceased wife to her native village. They 
accepted the deal and carried the woman for two months over the 
treacherous terrain. When Piggy and I saw them, they were only six- 
teen kilometers from their final destination. 

liao: What happened to them? 

luo: The soldiers made the two brothers carry the corpse to the county 
government building. They were locked in a dark room, together with 
the corpse. 

liao: Those poor guys. Corpse walking was quite labor-intensive, much 
harder than farming. They were not exploiters, but working-class 
people — the allies of Communism. 

luo: I agree that corpse walkers were working-class, and if the corpse 
had been, say, a poor peasant girl, those two would have gotten off easy. 
But they had committed a double crime: first, they engaged in a busi- 
ness connected with tradition and superstition; second, they were 
employed by a Nationalist officer. It was considered quite a serious 
crime to cooperate with an enemy. 

Anyway, in the 1950s, it was not uncommon to see people executed 


after being denounced at a “speak bitterness” session. So after Piggy 
told me what he’d done to those corpse walkers, fear took hold of me. 
Soon the village square was packed with gawking spectators. I could 
see people’s heads moving in the slight drizzle! Loud drums and gongs 
drowned out the chatter of the crowd. Some who couldn’t get in 
climbed up onto the roof of the grain collection station. Country folk 
seldom got to visit the city and had no access to entertainment all year 
long. Public denunciation meetings offered free drama for many 
onlookers. None of them wanted to miss it. 

A makeshift stage had been set up next to the grain warehouse. The 
newly appointed county chief sat behind a long table in the middle 
wearing a gray suit like Mao’s. Next to him were the head of the gov- 
ernment Land Reform work team and three soldiers. About a dozen 
wooden chairs and stools were placed in the front row. They were 
reserved for the head of the village militia, the chairman of the newly 
formed Poor Peasant Revolutionary Committee, and several peasant 
activists. Soon the loud gongs and drums stopped. The county chief 
grabbed a microphone that occasionally blasted out piercing squeals. 
He moved his mouth closer: Let’s first bring Zhang Kan, the evil land- 
lord, Liu Chan, the notorious bandit leader, and their lackeys out on 

1 felt somewhat relieved that the corpse walkers were not called. 
People standing near the stage shuffled around to make way for the 
criminals: More than ten people were pushed onto the stage. They 
were wearing tall dunce caps, their hands were tied to their backs, black 
cartoon boards hung in front of their chests with characters such as evil 
landlord Zhang Kan, et cetera. Then the county chief raised his right 
arm and shouted, “Down with the exploiting class and kill the evil land- 
lords and the bandits!” As if on cue, people all raised their right arms 
and shouted in agreement. After the slogan shouting died down, some 
poor peasant activists stood up and began to tell dreadful stories about 
how badly they had been treated and exploited by those landlords 
before the Communists came. Their testimonies were followed by 
another round of slogan shouting. Then the soldiers escorted the pair 
of them and their lackeys out to an open field nearby, and the whole 
bunch was shot dead on the spot. 

liao: What about the corpse walkers? 


The Corpse Walkers 

LUO: After the county chief announced the execution, people started 
getting restless and asked: 1 heard some corpse walkers were arrested 
last night. Where are they? The county chief wasn’t about to let them 
down. About half an hour later, the corpse walkers were paraded onto 
the stage. People immediately pushed toward the front, trying to take a 
good look at these people who were supposed to possess legendary 
powers that could make a corpse walk. The gathering became quite 
chaotic and several kids were trampled in the crush. The soldiers on 
the stage stood up and jumped down into the crowd to help maintain 
order. They tried to push the crowd back from the stage. The county 
chief screamed on the microphone: Order, order, don’t push. Chaos 
will create opportunities for our class enemies to stir up trouble. 

But the people wouldnt back down. Who could blame them? The 
older brother and the cheongsam-wearing corpse had been tied 
together, back-to-back. The younger brother was forced to put on the 
black robe and carry the white lantern and the basket with fake paper 
money. The scary mask was tied to the back of his head. The older 
brother had a black sign hung around his neck that said "The Lackey of 
the Counterrevolutionary Corpse.” When a soldier pushed the elder 
brother’s head down to show regret, the head of the corpse, tied to his 
back, appeared to look up. We could see her permed hair and makeup. 
It was quite a frightening but comical scene. People began to ooh and 
ahh. A woman in the audience screamed: She is an evil fox! 

liao: Isn t it taboo to insult a corpse? Didn t people worry about retribu- 
tion for blaspheming the dead? 

luo: People were so caught up in the moment that traditions and taboos 
went totally out the door. It was like a circus. The crowd kept getting 
rowdier. The excitement was quite contagious. Some younger guys 
tried to climb onto the stage to touch the corpse. The soldiers wrestled 
with them, attempting to push them down. It was a real mob scene. 
Then suddenly we heard a loud crash: the stage had collapsed. People 
were screaming and falling over one another. One soldier raised his gun 
and fired at the sky several times before the crowd became silent and 
under control. 

Luckily for the two brothers, their kung fu skills came in handy. 
They were able to dodge the attacks from the mob and survived with 


some minor injuries. The soldiers then untied the corpse from the 
elder brother's back and sent both of them back to the dark room. That 
night the two brothers broke a window and escaped. They were soon 
discovered by soldiers on patrol, who chased after them for several kilo- 
meters. The elder brother, though shot in the leg, didn't want to surren- 
der. As he stumbled forward up on the mountain, he accidentally 
stepped on a loose stone and fell into a ravine. After that the younger 
one was caught without any resistance. 

liao: Was he executed? 

luo: The younger one was allowed to wrap the bodies of his brother and 
the army officer’s wife in straw mats, and he dug a grave and buried 
them together outside the village. Then he was deported back to his 
local village with the death certificate of his brother. I heard later that 
the government charged the elder brother posthumously with “refusing 
to admit crimes and committing a sacrificial suicide to honor a coun- 

liao: What an ending. 

luo: But that wasn’t the end. Several days later, the village officials had 
some unexpected guests: the relatives of the Nationalist officer’s wife. 
They had received a letter from the officer telling them to welcome 
home the body, and they had set up an altar and were prepared to hold 
a wake. They waited and waited, but the corpse walkers never showed 
up, and eventually they got word of what had happened at the public 
denunciation meeting. 

liao: What could they do? She had already been buried. 

luo: The relatives cried and screamed and went all the way to the 
county chief ’s office. They begged him to give the body back. Normally, 
the county chief wouldn't dare meet such a request for a Nationalist 
officer's wife. But the fiasco at the public denunciation meeting plus 
the killing of a corpse walker, who was considered a member of the 
working class, had made him nervous. 

He was afraid that the relatives of the dead woman could take the 


The Corpse Walkers 

issue to a higher level of government and get him into trouble. So he let 
them dig up the body. The relatives then hired some professional 
mourners, who carried the body home. It was quite a procession in 
the old-fashioned style, which the county officials pretended they 
didn't see. 

It had been a long journey home for that woman. As for the elder 
brother, it was really sad that someone who had spent his whole life 
returning the dead to their ancestral homes should end up getting 
buried in a place far away from his own home. 


A year ago, I met a medical doctor named Sun outside Shimen- 
kan, a village in the mountainous region of Yunnan Province. 
Dr. Sun used to have a cushy practice at a government-run hos- 
pital in Beijing, hut in the midnineties he joined China’s 
underground Christian movement, and his religious beliefs 
eventually cost him his job. Since then, he has been traveling 
around Yunnan preaching Christianity and offering medical 

About two years ago, while visiting a tuberculosis patient 
in Shimenkan, he came across a dilapidated hut hidden in the 
woods on the slope of the mountain. Intrigued by this lonely 
dwelling far from town, he decided to find out who lived there. 
His local guide tried to prevent him, saying that this was the 
residence of the village leper. Dr. Sun ignored his advice. The 
hut’s thatched roof was blackened by decay, several parts of 
the clay walls had collapsed, and on a bench outside there sat 
an elderly couple, astonished at the sight of a visitor. The man’s 
name was Zhang Zhi-en and the woman was his wife. Dr. Sun 
told me their story and I decided to intenhew them. After hours 
of driving on a winding, red-dirt mountain road, I found Zhang 
sitting in his yard, dozing off in the sun. 

liao yiwu : How old are you? 

ZHANG ZHI-EN: I was born in the year of the sheep. So 1 should be 
seventy-five this year. This is my new wife. She is a horse — seventy-six 
years old. 

liao: How long have you lived here? 

zhang: Oh, for many years. I used to live down in Shimenkan at the foot 
of the mountain. But the village people didn’t allow me to get close to 

The Leper 41 

them. They said I was contagious. So I just moved up here. Before Dr. 
Sun visited us, we hadn t talked to a living person for years. 

liao: How did you contract leprosy? 

zhang: My bad luck started when I accidentally killed a snake. I don’t 
remember what year it was. I think it was before Deng Xiaoping came 
to power and began to give some land back to peasants from the collec- 
tive farms. 

liao: Deng’s economic reform started in the late seventies. 

zhang: OK. Early one morning I went to the mountain to dig some 
herbs so I could sell them at the local market. I used to make my living 
that way. As I was climbing, one of my feet caught on a piece of rock 
and I fell. While I struggled to get up, I spotted a wild azalea near my 
foot. The azalea root is a type of rare herb and it can sell for big bucks. 
So I took a berry hoe out of my backpack and carefully dug around the 
plant. It turned out the root was quite fat, worth a lot of money. While 
I was lost in happy thoughts, a snake darted out from the bushes and 
wrapped its body around the azalea root. It had rough brownish skin, 
and I saw that it was what we called a Ma snake. I was startled and 
began to shake. Before the snake had a chance to attack, I hacked at it 
with the hoe. I missed its head the first time but cut its tail off. The 
snake’s tongue darted out and it writhed in pain. I aimed my hoe at its 
head and whacked it a couple more times. When I was sure the snake 
was dead, I dug out the azalea root and went home. 

Soon after, I began to be haunted by the experience. My skin 
itched and I felt cold all the time. I wore a cotton-padded coat even in 
the middle of summer. I tried all sorts of herbs, hoping to find a cure 
for myself. Nothing worked. One day, I went to buy some salt at the 
nearby market and bumped into the head of the collective farm. When 
he saw that I was shivering with cold in the summer sun, he asked 
what was wrong. I said I was possessed by the spirit of the Ma snake. 

He was shocked and his face turned ugly. Those Ma snakes are 
holy creatures. They’re dragons on earth! It's a taboo to kill them. You’re 

liao: Doomed? 



zhang: The collective-farm leader began to spread all sorts of rumors 
about my disease. Since Ma snakes sound similar to leprosy, mafeng- 
bing in Chinese, he told people that I was suffering from leprosy. He 
contacted the local leprosy clinic, but their damn doctor didn't even 
want to get close to me. He examined me from five feet away and said 
1 was suffering from leprosy. I tried to argue with him. He said, Look at 
your face. It's as pale as ashes. If you don’t have leprosy, what else can 
it be? 

Several militiamen from the village put on face masks and gloves 
and dragged me to the local leprosy sanatorium. 1 went through several 
tests and everything seemed to be normal, but they wouldn't allow me 
to leave. Instead they assigned me to work in the kitchen, where I 
ended up cooking for other patients for four years. Eventually the 
director of the hospital realized that it was against Party policy to lock a 
healthy person inside a leprosy hospital. So they let me out. 

liao: Did you have any contact with leprosy patients while you worked 

zhang: Of course. We hung out together all day long. It was no big deal. 
Nothing happened to me. When 1 got home, the world had changed. 
Chairman Mao had already died, and Deng Xiaoping had taken over. 
The commune no longer existed. They’d had a public meeting and dis- 
tributed all the land to individual households. Since I wasn't around, 
they didn't leave me anything, not even a piece of dirt. Even if I had 
been around, they would have told me that I wasn't eligible because I 
was a leper. So I became homeless overnight — no land and no home. 
But I didn t give up, and I began to petition the local government. 1 told 
those officials: I come from generations of poor peasants. Didn’t Chair- 
man Mao say that poor people are the pillars of the Communist soci- 
ety? Why should I have to put up with this shit? 

The government offices didn’t know what to do about me. Finally, 
a leader from my village made a proposal: since I was a bachelor 
and was way past marriage age, he promised to fix me up with a girl 
from another county. In this way, I could move out of the village and 
get a wife and some land in another county. Why not? That didn't 
sound too bad. So I accepted. The girl’s name was Xu Meiying. Neither 
of us was picky. Soon after we met, I thanked the matchmaker, held 

The Lefer 43 

a wedding banquet, and moved out of Shimenkan. As you know, in 
the rural areas, women normally move in with the guy’s family after 
marriage. I did the opposite. The locals called me a relocated son- 

liao: Did your wife know about your past at the leprosy sanatorium? 

zhang: She had stayed at the same leprosy sanatorium for a while and 
was also released, like me, because her test results came back negative. 
Even so, people were afraid to be around her. That was probably why 
they fixed us up together. Even now, people here are scared of leprosy. 
If they think you might have it, they’ll immediately lock you up in an 
isolated ward. Over the years, many healthy people have been sent to 
the hospital because fellow villagers suspected they had leprosy. So 
Xu Meiying and I turned out to have a similar history. Before me, she 
had several boyfriends. None of them had a good reputation. None of 
them made an honest living on the farm. They were either petty thieves 
or scoundrels. Compared with the other guys, 1 was a much better 

I moved in and we began to sleep in the same bed. She was about 
three years younger than I was. When we first lived together, they had 
just started building this road. That shows you how long ago it was. We 
farmed together and life was OK. 

liao: Did you have kids? 

zhang: No. My wife was sick for many years. 

liao: I was told that they burned her to death. When did that happen? 

zhang: I don't remember exactly. I think it’s been ten years. She had 
met an evil dragon and was possessed by its spirit, and we couldn’t find 
a cure. It all started in the spring. As I was plowing the field, another 
Ma snake jumped out at me. I didn't want to kill it, but the snake 
looked so menacing. I was scared and smashed it to death. Soon after 
that was the Qingming festival, when everyone in the village goes to 
visit the cemeteries and pays tribute to the dead. My wife visited her 
mother s tomb on that day. After she came back, we had a guest — a rel- 



ative of hers from Fumin County. She stayed with us for over three 
months. This relative gave her some colorful new cloth. My wife made 
a quilt out of it. 

liao: Wait, I’m lost. Let’s go back to the evil dragon. 

zhang: That night, there was a terrible thunderstorm. Pouring rain. 
Right before dawn, a big clap of thunder struck. Our whole house 
shook. Suddenly the evil dragon appeared along with the thunder, 
coming down like the lid on a big cauldron. I could see the head of the 
dragon half-hidden inside the cloud, its tail wagging back and forth 
over the village cemetery. My wife opened the window and tried to 
peek at what was going on outside. As soon as she opened the window, 
I heard a loud scream. I ran in and found her collapsed on the floor. 
Her eyes were closed and she couldn’t say anything. Suddenly she 
jumped up, screaming like a devil, saying that her head was killing her. 
Then she lost her eyesight. She also became deaf. 

I was terrified and took her to see many local doctors. I spent all of 
our savings. I forced her to drink every kind of herb that the doctor had 
prescribed, but she kept getting worse. Nobody knew what had caused 
her illness. I almost went crazy. News about her illness started to 
spread all over the village. The stories became more and more dramatic 
and weird. Everyone in the village began to believe that my wife’s ill- 
ness was an act of retribution for my killing of two Ma snakes. They 
said 1 had upset the dragon, and that it had used its magic power 
against my family as revenge. 

I invited the local Taoist monk to set up an exorcism. But the spirit 
of the dragon was too powerful for him. Then someone introduced me 
to a blind fortune-teller. He asked me to take him around the house. 
He sniffed here and there and then left without a word. I never heard 
from him again. I could tell that Xu Meiying wouldn’t be able to live 
long. I went to talk with her older brother, and then he discussed her 
illness with the village chief. They both insisted that my wife was suf- 
fering a relapse of leprosy. Some older folks in the village even told me 
that her mother had died of leprosy. 

liao: I didn’t think leprosy was hereditary. Is it? 

The Leper 45 

zhang: How would I know? I had no idea what to do. I was running 
around like a chicken with its head cut off. When Xu Meiyings elder 
brother showed up, he wouldn't come into the house. He called me 
outside, and I saw he’d gathered quite a group of people there, includ- 
ing the village chief. Her brother told me that they had come up with a 
solution that would be good for me. Then, like a school of fish, the vil- 
lage people came to shake my hand, one after another. They all said the 
same thing: This will be good for you in the long term. 

liao: What were they talking about? 

zhang: I had no clue. As a relocated son-in-law, I really didn't have 
much say in village affairs. If I had tried to argue with them, they would 
have drowned me with their spit. 

Anyway, the next morning the whole village showed up. They called 
me outside and asked me to stand apart and not to move. They took the 
door off, placed Xu Meiying on the door, and carried her away. Her 
brother told her that they were going to take her to a hospital. She was 
too weak to respond. He yelled at everyone to step aside, and they car- 
ried her out of the courtyard and down to the foot of the mountain. 
According to tradition, every household in the village contributed a 
bundle of wood until they formed a big pile. They tied Xu Meiying to 
the door with ropes and then put her and the door on top of the pile. 
Someone poured kerosene, making sure the wood was fully soaked. 
Then they lit the fire. 

liao: Did you do anything to stop them? 

zhang: Several guys held me back. All I could see was a plume of black 
smoke shooting up into the sky until it blocked the sun. Then the 
flames got really strong. I didn t want to look, but curiosity got the best 
of me. I craned my neck and stood on my toes. All I could see was a 
wall of fire. Xu Meiyings body was like a piece of skin that began to 
curl up. Its color kept getting darker and darker. 

liao: I cant believe they set her on fire while she was still alive. Didnt 
she react? 


zhang: She was blind and deaf. She hadn’t eaten for days and she was 
probably already in a coma. Even if she had been awake, it would have 
been only seconds before she died. The flames were so strong that 1 
could feel the heat from several feet away. The pile collapsed and her 
body sank into the fire. Then all the young guys threw their wooden 
sticks into the fire. 

UAO: What wooden sticks? 

zhang: In case Xu Meiying tried to jump up and run away. If she had, 
they would have beaten her back into the fire. 

liao: What a lawless mob. 

zhang: What are you talking about? 

liao: I'm talking about the people who killed your wife. 

zhang: They did it because they were afraid of leprosy. They had no 
other choice. The fire lasted for over two hours. No matter how emaci- 
ated the person is, it takes that long to melt a human body. 

liao: Were you sad? Did you cry? 

zhang: No. Some villagers told me that they saw the tail of the evil 
dragon coiling around the flames. 

liao: Do you believe what they said? 

zhang: Yes, I do. After Xu Meiying’s death, I continued to use the quilt 
she had made. One night I had a nightmare in which a snake as thick 
and round as a big rice howl wrapped itself around my body. I couldn’t 
breathe. So 1 raised my berry hoe and kept hacking at it until my arms 
were sore and there was blood all over. When I woke up, I found myself 
on the floor. I had fallen out of the bed. It was so spooky. I didn’t dare 
go back to sleep. The next day 1 dragged the quilt out into the field and 
set fire to it. Guess what? The flames shot up as if it were soaked in oil. 
It smelled like burned flesh. The dragon must have been hiding in 

The Leper 47 

there. After the quilt was burned, I buried the ashes. Since then, my 
house has been ghost-free. 

liao: Did you collect your wife’s remains and bury her? 

zhang: Xu Meiying’s elder brother collected her bones and buried them 
near the White Sand Hill. But that was not the end of the ceremony. 1 
had to host a banquet to thank the villagers who had helped. 

liao: They burned your wife and you had to feed them as a gesture of 
gratitude. Didn’t you find that ridiculous? 

zhang: What they had done was for my own good. 1 had no complaints 
against them for eating my food. I couldn’t shortchange them. I wanted 
everyone at the banquet to eat until their stomachs could no longer 
take any food. As long as they were happy, I was happy. I gave them the 
food and they did the cooking. The village chief led a couple of guys 
into my house, took a pig from the pen, and slaughtered it. They also 
grabbed the dried meat that was hanging under the eaves. They put 
a pot on top of the stove and began to boil the meat, even before 
the smoke from my wifes body was gone. They made a huge pot of 
rice. It was quite festive. Soon it was dark. Villagers, with torches 
lit, carried big rice bowls and gathered near my house, waiting for 
the banquet to begin. There were about thirty households in the vil- 
lage. Each family sent its breadwinner to the banquet. I ended up 
spending all my savings, and it was still not enough — I had to bor- 
row some more. I didn’t have enough rice to feed that many people. 
The village chief pitched in. He said I could pay him back after the fall 

liao: Burning a live person to death is a violation of the law. Did you 
report it to the police? 

zhang: Why? They were helping me out. 

liao: You still believe that? 

zhang: Yes. Everyone in the village thinks that too. 


LIAO: Things have changed a lot in other parts of China. 1 don’t see any 
changes here. 

zhang: Oh, there are quite a lot of changes here. They built a road some 
years ago and now its been widened. People are allowed to do busi- 
ness. Everyone is busy making money. 1 raise pigs, dogs, and chickens. 
I'm too old to farm so 1 leased my land to other people. My current wife 
and I don’t need a lot. So we’re OK. 

liao: How long have you been with your new wife? 

zhang: About five years. She used to live on the other side of the moun- 
tain. None of her children wanted to take care of her. Someone 
brought her over to me for companionship. 

liao: Does she know about Xu Meiying? 

ZHANG: She’s never asked and I’m not going to tell her. I don’t think she 
wants to hear it. For years I haven’t been able to talk with anyone in the 
region. Now that she is here, I have someone to talk with. 

liao: Do you still think about Xu Meiying? 

zhang: Oh, well ... I have to blame the evil dragon. Not long after she 
was gone, her elder brother’s wife also fell under the spell of the dragon 
and got very ill. According to the Taoist monk who was invited to exor- 
cise the evil spirit, Xus brother needed to feed the dragon with human 
brain marrow. So Xus brother snuck into the cemetery at midnight, 
dug up a recently buried corpse, and extracted some brain marrow. He 
took it home to feed his wife. He told me that he could hear the dragon 
screaming angrily under a bridge. 

liao: The brain marrow from a dead person is filled with germs and 
viruses. That's probably what made her ill. 

zhang: Oh well, I don’t know. 

LIAO: Time seems to have stopped here. Every day, all you can hear is 
the sound of wind blowing. 

The Leper 49 

zhang: Yes, but we also hear the trucks pass by. We are very grateful to 
Dr. Sun. His church helped me rebuild my house. I 'm now a believer in 
God. Thanks to God, I have a doctor visit me and take me to a church 
down on the other side of the mountain every month. Nobody in the 
church shuns me. They are all very nice. I pray to God every day, hop- 
ing that the evil dragon will not come back and harm people again. 


A week after the Chinese Neu / Year in 1998, I interviewed the 
forty-eight-year-old Zeng Yinglong, a peasant who proclaimed 
himself emperor in 1985 and declared his hometown in 
Sichuan Province an independent kingdom. Zeng urn charged 
with multiple counterrevolutionary crimes, including organiz- 
ing and leading subversive activities against the local govern- 
ment and the government’s one-child policy. Considering the 
fact that he was a truly uneducated and uninformed person, the 
court reduced his sentence from the death penalty to lifelong 
imprisonment. Zeng was then locked up inside a maximum 
security prison in the Daba Mountain in the northeastern part 
of Sichuan. Yet he was an optimist by nature, and abided by the 
prison rules. All the guards and fellow inmates liked him. They 
jokingly called him "Your Majesty. ” 

During the interview, I noticed that “The Heavenly Son," 
as we Chinese used to refer to our real emperors, was getting 
bald on top, but his narrou’ eyes still shone with piercing arro- 
gance. He was wearing a pair of old army shoes and a short blue 
jacket over his blue prison uniform. He rolled up his sleeves 
and talked nonstop for two hours, issuing one edict after 

liao yiwu: Are you the well-known emperor that people talk about in 
this jail? 

zeng yinglong: You should address me as “Your Majesty.” 

liao: OK. Your Majesty, when did you assume your role as an emperor? 

zeng: Your Majesty didn't want to be the emperor. It was his ten- 
thousand-strong subjects who crowned him. Let me tell you how it all 

The Peasant Emperor 51 

got started: About ten years ago, a giant salamander climbed out of the 
river and hid inside a crack on a huge rock in the middle of the Wu 
River. The locals called the rock the “Guanyin Bodhisattva stone.” That 
mysterious salamander could talk like humans. Each night, many vil- 
lage folks could hear the lizard singing a ballad from inside the crack. 
The ballad went like this: “The fake dragon sinks, and the real dragon 
surfaces. On the south side of the river, peace and happiness reign.’ 
Later on, the story of the singing lizard spread to hundreds of villages 
in the region. Even small children knew how to sing the ballad. A local 
feng shui master, whose name was MaXing, became really curious and 
wanted to trace its source. One night, he led a group of villagers to 
the bank of the Wu River and waited for the salamander to sing. The 
lizard did sing. Ma and other villagers jumped on a boat and followed 
the sound to the rock and saw the salamander. That lizard wasn’t afraid 
of the crowd at all. Instead of gliding away, the salamander simply 
wagged its tail, as if waiting for people to come see him. Ma used a 
wooden stick to prod its mouth open. He pulled out a three-inch- 
long yellow silk ribbon. The ballad was written on the ribbon. With his 
face toward heaven, his eyes closed, Ma began chanting like a monk. 
Then, holding the yellow ribbon above his head, he knelt on the ground 
and kowtowed three times. After he stood up, he turned to his fel- 
low villagers and said that he had just communicated with the spirit 
in heaven and had officially accepted some divine instructions from 

Your Majesty didnt know anything about that legendary singing 
salamander. At that time, Your Majesty was on the run from the law. 
The government had implemented a very tough one-child policy. Local 
officials dished out very severe punishment to those planning to have a 
second child. They would go around the village with doctors and knock 
on doors, checking up on every household. If a woman was found to be 
pregnant with her second or third child, she would be sent to a clinic 
for an abortion and have to pay a heavy fine. Also, women of childbear- 
ing age had to be sterilized or have a loop installed in the womb. Your 
Majesty had two daughters, but very much wanted to have a son to 
carry on the family name. To escape punishment, Your Majesty joined 
other villagers and secretly moved with his pregnant wife to another 
province. Your Majesty ended up in the northwestern province of Xin- 
jiang, where he worked on some odd jobs at a construction site. With 


gods' blessing, Your Majesty did have a son, who was named Yan-ze 
[meaning Continued Benevolence], After the baby was born, Your 
Majesty took his wife and the newly born to Henan Province, where 
they settled in a city called Xinxiang. 

You will probably ask me: How did this part of Your Majesty’s life 
fit the story of the legendary singing salamander? Well, if you remem- 
ber the ballad, it says Zhen-sheng-long, or real dragon surfaces. 
This sounds similar to my name Zeng-ying-Iong. Moreover, the 
ballad mentions that “South of the river, happiness and peace reign.” I 
was in Henan, which means “south of the river." The city where 1 
was staying was called Xinxiang, which means “newly established 

A couple of days after his encounter with the salamander, Ma gath- 
ered together a group of my subjects. They walked hundreds of kilome- 
ters to Henan to meet with Your Majesty. The moment he saw Your 
Majesty, Ma took out a dragon robe and put it on Your Majesty. Then, 
Ma and his followers knelt down and chanted: “Ten thousand years to 
the Emperor. Your Majesty couldn't turn his back on the will of his 
subjects. Neither could he disobey the will of heaven. Therefore, Your 
Majesty returned to his hometown as the people s emperor, established 
a new dynasty, and selected 1985 as Year One ot his reign. 

liao: What was the name of your dynasty? 

zeng: It was called Dayou. 

liao: What does that mean? 

zeng: “Dayou" means "We share everything.” After Your Majesty was 
crowned, he promulgated the first imperial edict: "We farm the land 
together, share wealth, and can bear as many children as we wish." The 
edict became wildly popular among my subjects. 

liao: How large was Your Majesty’s kingdom? 

zeng: Actually, Your Majesty only ruled three counties near the borders 
of Hunan, Guizhou, and Sichuan provinces. 

The Peasant Emperor 53 

liao: Allow me to be frank with you. According to the court document, 
you had reenacted an ancient story mentioned in the Records of the 
Grand Historian, written by the famous historian Sima Qian. Based on 
the tale in the Records of the Grand Historian, Chen Sheng, a peasant 
rebel in the Qin dynasty [221 BC-206 bc], attempted to rally public sup- 
port against the emperor and justify his claim to the throne by inserting 
a yellow ribbon inside a fish. Then, the cook "accidentally’ discovered 
the fish and the ribbon, which said “King Chen Sheng.” Everyone 
believed it was a message from the Heavenly God and they all joined 
Chen's uprising, which eventually led to the downfall of the Qin 
dynasty. Apparently, Ma Xing reenacted every detail. That needed a lot 
of elaborate planning. It is hard to believe that after two thousand 
years, the ancient trick still worked. Did the local villagers truly believe 
it was a manifestation from the Heavenly God? 

zeng: Shut up. That is awfully rude of you to talk to Your Majesty like 
that. Your Majesty knows that you are a journalist in disguise and have 
been sent from the hostile Kingdom of China. Your Majesty refutes all 
your slanderous remarks. 

liao: I’m not a journalist. I’m merely an ordinary researcher and writer. 
If Your Majesty doesn’t want to talk with me today, I don’t think the 
opportunity will present itself again for you to tell people outside the 
jail about yourself, your subjects, and your kingdom. Based on my 
observations, you are a pretty smart guy, well versed in Chinese history, 
and harbor grand ambitions. You went a little too far with your ambi- 
tions, but it’s understandable. You don’t want to be a laughingstock for 
future generations, do you? 

zeng: Throughout history, it’s common for a general or emperor to face 
defeat. What’s there to laugh about? But can you promise to record 
faithfully what Your Majesty tells you? 

liao: Yes, Your Majesty. I solemnly promise. 

zeng: Let's say the singing salamander part was taken from an ancient 
Chinese story. But the rest is true. Upon his return, Your Majesty 
immediately appointed Ma Xing as prime minister. According to Prime 



Minister Ma, the Dayou Kingdom, located in a remote mountainous 
region, was sparsely populated. My subjects were old-fashioned peo- 
ple, bound by thousands of years of ancestral tradition. The concept of 
big families with many male descendants was deeply rooted in the 
minds of my subjects. The family planning policy, promulgated by the 
Kingdom of China, triggered regionwide protests. Many married women 
had to run off to the mountain to hide in caves and live like barbarians. 
They would rather eat wild vegetables and drink stream water than go 
through forced abortion and sterilization. Prime Minister Ma recom- 
mended that Your Majesty should take advantage of that popular anti- 
government sentiment. Ma urged all Your Majesty’s staff to visit people 
at home and propagate the belief that giving birth to children is an 
inalienable right bestowed upon us by our ancestors. The more children 
we have, the better off we are. Raising children can be hard, but people 
in this kingdom are used to poverty and hard life. It won't make too much 
of a difference whether you raise one kid or seven or eight. Having one 
more kid means adding one more glimpse of hope to our kingdom. If 
anyone wants us to give up hope, we will fight with him to the very end. 

After mobilizing the masses for over six months, Your Majesty had 
rallied enough support and laid a firm foundation for the Dayou King- 
dom. Your Majesty issued a series of secret imperial edicts urging all of 
his subjects to exercise their right to big families. If any woman could 
give birth to more than ten children, Your Majesty would crown her 
with the title “The Royal Mother.” 

During this time, a prestigious villager passed away. He had lived 
past one hundred. In my region, if a person can live to an advanced age, 
he is treated with great respect. When he dies, the funeral is a big deal. 
Many people will travel from afar to attend the funeral in the hope that 
some of the deceased s luck would rub off on them. As a large number 
of villagers were expected to attend this guy’s funeral, we decided to 
use the occasion to officially proclaim the birth of the Dayou Kingdom. 
Prime Minister Ma, a feng shui master by trade, spent a lot of time and 
energy preparing for the funeral. For two days, Ma climbed hills and 
crossed rivers to scout out an auspicious site for the old man’s grave. 
He finally located a spot pretty far away from the village. We had a 
wake with an open coffin for a whole week. Monks from a nearby tem- 
ple were invited to chant sutras day and night. The abbot in the temple 
also helped select an auspicious date for burial. 

The Peasant Emperor 55 

Based on local traditions, on the day of burial, the coffin had to be 
lowered inside the grave before sunrise. In this way, the elder’s spirit 
could be eternalized and rise with the sun. Under Ma’s direction, the 
funeral procession, with the participation of several thousand mourn- 
ers, started around midnight. A local brass band led the way. Since that 
old man was an ordinary peasant, his burial was not something for an 
emperor to attend. But Your Majesty had to humble himself and act 
like an ordinary villager. As the line of mourners proceeded up the nar- 
row path wrapping around the mountain, the glittering lights of the fire 
torches carried by mourners mixed with the stars in the sky. From a dis- 
tance, you couldn’t tell the torches from the stars. At this juncture, 
Prime Minster Ma turned to me and knelt down. He said: Your 
Majesty, look at this grand spectacle. Heavenly God is on our side. 

I agreed with him and beckoned him to move fast and catch up 
with the procession. The lead mourner, who was hired to howl and 
chant, had a truly resonating voice. He would howl a line, and people 
would respond with another. The echo of howling and chanting was so 
loud that the mountain seemed to be vibrating. “Go, go, do not tarry; 
Heaven’s gate awaits the morn. You rest awhile and arise reborn. To 
beget a male child, and marry.” 

liao: Interesting. The chanting about reincarnation even rhymed. 

zeng: The true reincarnation had not even manifested itself yet. Finally, 
we arrived at the burial site. When it was time to start the ceremony, 
Niu Daquan, who was my chief of staff, gathered ten of the royal guards 
from my kingdom. Together, they began to perform the sun dance rit- 
ual. As the beat of the drums quickened, many people couldn’t resist 
and joined in the dancing. While the momentum was building up, 
Prime Minister Ma suddenly took off his shirt, and pulled the Dayou 
Kingdom dragon flag from a bag and waved it in his hand. He stomped 
his feet, and shook his head in ecstasy. He then took a handful of peas 
from his pocket, and scattered them into the sky, chanting, “Change, 
we need change." People immediately crawled on the ground to pick 
up the peas, which were auspicious symbols of longer life. Suddenly, 
dark clouds rose from behind the hill, accompanied with loud thunder 
and lightning. Heavy rain poured down on us, as if Heavenly God had 
dispatched thousands of warlike soldiers to earth. 


liao: You guys reenacted an episode from another ancient Chinese 
fable, Scattering peas to summon troops. In the fable, a general was 
cornered by enemy troops. He sought help from the Heavenly God, 
who instructed him to scatter thousands of peas into the air. After he 
did that, the sky turned dark. Amid a heavy thunderstorm, those peas 
suddenly turned into soldiers. According to court papers, you guys 
reenacted this table to deceive those uneducated folks in your region. 
Your friend Ma Xing had checked the weather forecast beforehand and 
timed the burial ceremony to coincide with the arrival of the thunder- 
storm. Then, Ma began to scatter peas into the sky, as if the thunder- 
storm was the result of his magic. I have to commend you for the 
elaborate preparation. 

zeng: Dont interrupt, please. Please allow Your Majesty to continue. 
The crowd was stunned by the downpour and dashed for cover. Many 
knelt down in front of my prime minister, asking him to take back his 
magic power. Ma granted their plea. Half an hour later, the sky cleared 
up. After the mourners completed the burial and funeral ceremony, 
they followed Your Majesty down the mountain and joined the “Dayou 
Royal Army. Soon, the story of Mas magic power spread fast, and 
within two weeks, Your Majesty had recruited over ten thousand 

liao: You are such a liar. Again, court papers say fewer than two thou- 
sand people had joined your troops. 

zeng: Your Majesty doesn t lie or joke with you. Following that amazing 
ceremony, Your Majesty led his troops and seized the county hospital. 
They stormed the building and kicked out the hospital administrator. 
Then, they went directly to the family planning department and dug 
out all the contraceptives. They piled them up outside the building and 
set them on fire. Your Majesty s heroic act could be comparable to the 
burning of opium in the nineteenth century by Lin Zexu, the famous 
Qing official who attempted to stop opium trafficking by the British 
colonialists. Thousands of people cheered us on. Your Majesty then 
converted the hospital building into his palace. With this accom- 
plished, the prime minister, chief of staff, and other officials donned 
traditional official garb that they had made, gathered inside the royal 

The Peasant Emperor 57 

palace, and bowed collectively to Your Majesty to show respect and 
offer their gratitude. 

liao: I heard that Your Majesty possessed over forty concubines, and 
housed them in your various “royal chambers.” 

zeng: That was the doing of my prime minister and chief of staff. Ini- 
tially, Your Majesty declined the offer, saying that the kingdom was still 
in its infancy and hard work lay ahead. How could he indulge in sexual 
pleasure while nothing had been accomplished for the kingdom? But 
members of the cabinet begged Your Majesty to reconsider. They 
argued: Throughout history, in every dynasty, the emperor owned con- 
cubines housed in various palaces. If traditions were not followed, 
rules would not be in order. If rules were not in order. Your Majesty 
would lose credibility. We appreciate your determination to serve your 
subjects first and not to indulge in sexual pleasures. However, you have 
to follow the royal tradition. 

liao: Where did Your Majesty acquire those concubines? 

zeng: Every one of the nurses who used to work at the county hospital 
was selected and made my concubine. Several of my cabinet members 
recommended their daughters. However, Your Majesty was very busy 
handling the day-to-day court business. He seldom had time to shower 
love over the Queen, who had spent half of her life with Your Majesty, 
much less those concubines. 

liao: Your Majesty’s court seemed to be very corrupt. I can’t believe 
court officials were willing to sacrifice their daughters so they could 
curry favor with you. I now understand why you chose the county hos- 
pital as your palace. 

zeng: Your Majesty attacked the hospital first because burning the evil 
contraceptives was an effective way to gain support from the villagers. 
But Your Majesty was a little too preoccupied with the hospital and 
neglected the threat posed by the county police. Later on, the Chinese 
army was summoned and they surrounded the royal palace. Your 
Majesty led his troops to fight back. But unfortunately Your Majesty 


was captured in the initial battle. My chief of staff, Niu Daquan, 
moved all the concubines to the back of the palace and ordered them 
to jump into a pond there. He told them to commit suicide and die as 
martyrs. The water in the pond was too shallow. Those women were 
pushed into the water, but they couldn't drown. So my chief of staff 
became desperate. He took out his sword and chopped the heads off of 
two concubines. He had really lost his mind. 1 guess the pain and sad- 
ness of losing the kingdom were too hard to swallow. 

liao : I thought your chief of staff and your prime minister possessed the 
magic power to manipulate wind and rain. Why couldn't they scatter 
peas into the air and summon enough troops to fight the government 

zeng: My prime minister straightened the dragon flag, and was planning 
to perform his magic when a bullet hit his stomach. He was a heroic 
guy. With a loud howl, he managed to stand up and move a few steps 
forward before plopping down to the ground. 

liao: Your kingdom collapsed a little too fast, didn't you think? 

zeng: It was the will of heaven. Since my chief of staff killed two peo- 
ple, he was given the death penalty. Your Majesty and several cabinet 
members in the kingdom were charged with the crimes of overthrow- 
ing the Chinese government and were thrown into jail. But Your 
Majesty finds it hard to obey the Chinese law. Just think about it: Gen- 
erations of Your Majesty s family were buried in his kingdom. If you 
trace Your Majesty’s ancestral line, it goes all the way to the Song 
dynasty, over a thousand years ago. Don't you think Your Majesty 
should have the right to establish his kingdom there? His kingdom is 
poor because crops don't grow very well there. There was not enough 
manpower. If family planning were to succeed there, Your Majesty 
would be guilty in the eye of his ancestors for not doing the right thing. 
Moreover, Your Majesty wouldnt allow foreigners to go in there and 
carry out those brutal procedures on women in his kingdom. 

liao: What do you mean by foreigners? 

zeng: Anyone living outside my kingdom is considered a foreigner. 


The Peasant Emyeror 

liao: So, in your eyes, I’m also a foreigner. 

zeng: Correct. No matter how big or small the country is, they should 
treat one another as an equal. Each should send an ambassador and 
establish diplomatic relations. What do you think if officials from my 
country go to yours to implement a policy ol "having as many babies as 
you want”? Would you accept it? 

liao: Is this the reason for your repeated requests for appeal? 

zeng: Correct. 

LIAO: Imagine if every Chinese were to follow Your Majesty’s example, 
there would be millions of self-crowned emperors. You've b6en locked 
up in this jail for over ten years. How are the government and jail 
authorities treating you? 

zeng: Your Majesty is fairly knowledgeable about Chinese herbal medi- 
cine. The prison authority has assigned Your Majesty to take care of the 
prison clinic. In many ways, it's been a heavenly blessing. Your Majesty 
gets to read the newspapers every day, and has been informed of what’s 
going on outside. The Dayou Kingdom was very backward and isolated. 
Your Majesty hopes to work hard while in jail and obtain a reduced sen- 
tence so he can go back to serve his subjects soon. 

liao: Do you still want to be an emperor? 

zeng: Your Majesty has learned that poverty cannot sustain a kingdom. 
If he wants to eliminate poverty and become rich, he needs to learn 
about technology. In the past, Your Majesty diligently perused history 
books while neglecting the changes happening outside his home. Since 
he was put into jail, Your Majesty has widened the scope of reading. He 
has just been enrolled at a correspondence college. 

LIAO: An emperor wants to go to college? That’s quite refreshing. I heard 
that Your Majesty tried hard to get permission to attend this correspon- 
dence college. You wrote an "imperial edict” to prison officials. In your 
letter, you addressed the two prison officials in charge as “members of 
my royal cabinet.” 



zeng: It costs money to go to college. Your Majesty wrote that “edict" 
with the intent to commend the two prison officials for their good work. 
At the same time, he hoped to ask for financial help with tuition. Little 
did Your Majesty know that his well-intentioned letter was misunder- 
stood. The officials came to his cell and scolded him harshly. 

liao: Has the queen ever visited here? 

zeng: Your Majesty has already banished her from the royal family. 

liao: So you two are divorced. Have your children changed their names? 

zeng: Its a long story. Your Majesty is in a sour mood now, and cannot 

liao: Here is my donation of fifty yuan [US$6.40]. 1 hope Your Majesty 
can get other sponsors to pay for your tuition. I wish you the best. 


I bumped into Huang Tianyuan, the then ninety -year- old feng 
shui master, on a small mountain path in September of 1 998, 
when I was visiting friends in Gongtanzui region, Sichuan. 
Huang helped villagers achieve optimum balance and harmony 
through the location and orientation of tombs and cemeteries. 

liao yiwu: Are you Mr. Huang, the famous feng shui master? 

huang tianyuan: Don’t listen to other people’s lies. I'm not a feng shui 
master. Please don’t ask me for any feng shui-related advice. 

liao: Actually, I'm from out of town. I’m not interested in finding out 
about the feng shui in this area. About twelve years ago, I worked for 
the folk art agency here. My director, Peng, and I used to visit villages 
along the You River to collect folk music and arts. One day, Director 
Peng came here to seek advice from you because his deceased father 
had appeared in his dreams many times. When he and I showed up at 
your house, you asked Director Peng to prepare a bowl of clear water 
and hold the bowl in front of you. I was puzzled by the ceremony and 
asked: What can you see in the water? Your answer contained two 
words: The soul. After examining the water for a couple of minutes, 
you urged Director Peng to bury his father’s ashes to appease the old 
mans soul. But Director Peng said: I have already buried my father’s 
ashes. Upon hearing that, you tapped a burning incense stick on the 
side of the bowl three times and asked: How come your father s ghost 
is still angry? Director Peng was so scared that his face turned ashen 
white. He immediately knelt in front of you and said: You are right, 
Master! I lied. It turned out his father’s ashes were still stored inside an 
urn at his house and he hadn’t had the opportunity to bury it yet. Do 
you remember that? 



huang: I know Director Peng, but I don't remember the ceremony. I 
don t do that anymore. I have given up my practice. 

liao: How come? 

HUANG: It's a long story. During the past decade, feng shui consulting 
and fortune-telling have become quite popular in this area. People con- 
sult feng shui masters before the construction of houses for both the 
living and the dead. My specialty is to advise people with choosing bur- 
ial sites. One year, I was so busy I offered consultation to at least fifty 

liao: Why, was there a high death rate that year? 

huang: No, no. The advice was for the living. In this area, people spend 
money choosing spots with good feng shui for big and lavish tombs 
while they are still alive. Tombs with the right feng shui can bring good 
luck for your descendants. 

I have worked hard for the folks here all my life and accumulated a 
little fortune from my business. I've just turned ninety. It’s time for me 
to take care of myself. So, two years ago, I left the business to my nine- 
year-old apprentice, who is a feng shui prodigy. One day, after my 
retirement, the former chief of our township asked me for help. So I 
walked around and picked a piece of land for him. Upon my recom- 
mendation, he hired a contingent of stonemasons, bricklayers, plaster- 
ers, and tillers, who worked nonstop for three months and converted 
the spot into a private cemetery. The township chief then moved all of 
his ancestors' tombs from seven kilometers away to the new spot. He 
also ordered the craftsmen to build a grave for himself, which was more 
spacious than his house. After the project was completed, the chief 
hosted a huge banquet, with twenty tables full of guests. I was invited 
but didn’t go. I got my butt out of there as soon as I could. If a person 
becomes too greedy, he starts to carry bad energy. I was too afraid he 
could pass the bad energy on to me. 

liao: The spot you picked for him was supposed to be auspicious. Why 
did you try to run away? 

The Feng Shui Master 63 

HUANG: People of different status are provided with different feng shui 
specs and with different levels of design. A good feng shui design 
requires the complete harmony of yin and yang elements. It should be 
neither inadequate nor excessive. The chief of the township broke all 
the rules of moderation. He heaped on himself the luxuries normally 
accorded to a provincial governor. You probably have heard about it. 
Inside his tomb, there was a long list of modern luxuries: a stone 
replica of a luxury car, a stone bed carved in the shape of a dragon boat, 
a room set aside for a nightclub with karaoke equipment. He even built 
a nice carved stone chair, specifically reserved for his meeting with the 
president of a multinational corporation in the world of the dead. He 
also specifically requested the company of “young ladies.” But the 
stonemason lacked the proper skills and none of the statues of young 
women looked pretty. You could hardly tell from their faces whether 
they were men or women. Building a tomb should be a private affair, 
but the township chief made it a huge public event. 

Its hard to blame him. Throughout history, there have been many 
people like him. For example, Emperor Qin Shihuang [259 bc — 210 bc] 
defeated other kingdoms and united China. After he established the 
Qin dynasty, he racked his brain and tried to figure out how it could last 
forever. While searching for an immortal pill, he also began to build his 
own grave. He wanted to take his wealth with him. Guess what? He 
ended up dying at the age of forty-nine. Soon after his death, his 
empire crashed. Do you see any difference between Emperor Qin Shi- 
huang and our government officials? They are in constant pursuit of 
gain for themselves and their descendants. When you overdo it, you 
achieve the opposite result. 

Please excuse the digression. Since the township chief made a 
big deal ot his tomb, he soon caught the attention of the local media. 
The pictures of his tombs were all over the paper. The county govern- 
ment read the report and sent out an investigative team to check how 
the tomb was financed. They found out that the chief had embezzled 
public funds. It became a huge scandal. A whole bunch of people 
under him — the village chiefs and the village party secretaries — were 
all implicated. They had all followed his had example by illegally 
occupying public and private lands, and embezzling public funds to 
build their own tombs. Many peasants also followed their lead. Those 
who couldnt afford to get advice from a feng shui master began to 


build their own tombs near those of the officials. As you can see from 
here, there are several rows of empty tombs on the sunny side of 
the path. 

liao: Were you implicated in the scandal? 

huang: And how! The township chief blamed me for all his criminal 
activities. He told everyone that he had fallen into my superstitious 
trap. He said I had encouraged him to embezzle public funds to sup- 
port his tomb-building project. He accused me of ruining his career 
and fortunes as well as those of his descendants. Then, many other 
party officials followed suit. They went to the police with the same 
accusations against me. Overnight, I became a criminal who was 
responsible for the revival of superstitious activities in the region. I had 
to run away and hide inside my own tomb for several months. Nobody 
knew where I was. They caught my nine-year-old apprentice and made 
him a scapegoat. The TV station shot a documentary about how the 
nine-year-old feng shui prodigy was a quack and deceived people with 
his tricks. After the documentary was aired, many people started to 
harass my family members. The public security bureau detained them 
for interrogation. Luckily, none of my family members knew the loca- 
tion of my hiding place. 

As the investigation expanded, police began to target other feng 
shui practitioners. They ended up arresting over twenty of them. Those 
poor guys were publicly denounced at village meetings and paraded 
through the streets along with other criminals. I heard several of the 
younger feng shui guys have been sent to a reeducation camp around 

Two years ago, there used to be an area in the marketplace for blind 
fortune-tellers and feng shui masters. I used to have a booth there and 
was in great demand. Many considered me a regional treasure. But 
police raided the area and made it illegal to practice fortune-telling and 
feng shui. 

liao: Are you still on the run? 

huang: No. Once the campaign was over, people forgot about me. 
Besides, I’m in my nineties. What can they do about me? I’m too old to 

The Feng Shui Master 65 

do any physical labor if they decide to send me to the reeducation 
camp. It they do lock me up, I could corrupt more people in jail by giv- 
ing them feng shui advice. Believe it or not, people love this kind of 
stutt. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards also clamped 
down on feng shui and fortune-telling activities. But I never stopped 
my practice because there was always a need somewhere. People 
secretly invited me to their homes and asked for my advice. 

liao: Yesterday, I walked around the area you just mentioned. It 
was empty. Apart from those who have been sent to the local reeduca- 
tion camp, where are the rest of the fortune-tellers and feng shui 

huang: They have all gone to the neighboring provinces of Guizhou and 
Hunan. Modern transportation has made it much easier to move 
around. Sometimes, people in Guizhou and Hunan don’t like outsiders 
to come in and invade their territories. Then, the Sichuan practitioners 
will travel to the coastal regions of Fujian and Zhejiang provinces 
where people are getting rich and desperately need the advice of 
fortune-tellers and feng shui masters. It's pretty easy to do business 
there. All you need to do is to show off a couple of your normal tricks 
and the locals will be all over you. However, it's a different story here. 
Since there is an oversupply of fortune-tellers and feng shui masters, 
you have to have solid skills to make money. 

liao: I think the central government has launched a nationwide cam- 
paign against feudalistic and superstitous practices. 

huang: You must be talking about witchcraft. I call that superstition. 
Recently, as feng shui and fortune-telling are out of favor, Witch 
Chen's business has started to pick up. Her house has been packed 
with customers. That witch only knows one trick: burn some fake 
paper money to appease the ghost and mix the ashes with water. She 
then has people drink the water, saying that it will cure them of illness. 
Apart from the water trick, she will also put on a Taoist costume 
and dance in a circle, mumbling to herself and screaming. She claims 
that the spirit of the Empress in Heaven possesses her, and the 
empress can help drive any illness or evil spirits from the patient’s body. 



Who knows what kind of ghost has possessed her. She is illiterate, 
and can't read a single character. But she charges people fifty yuan 
[U.S. $6.40] per session. I dont know why people take her seriously. 
Mixing water with paper ashes is pure crap. Huh, when I was on the 
run from police, that woman profited from my misfortune. In this 
world, feng shui changes all the time. One minute, luck appears on the 
east, and the next minute, it moves to the west. It’s like catching a 
mouse inside a quilt — you pounce on this end, and the mouse escapes 
from the other. 

liao: Do you think your good luck will return soon? 

huang: I bet it will. At the moment, people are very desperate and they 
all go visit Witch Chen. Once they realize that witchcraft doesn’t work, 
they will begin to miss me. I grew up reading the books of Confucius. I 
spent years poring over the I Ching, the Book of Changes, and all the 
Taoist classics. I studied Chinese medicine for many years. In the old 
days, a person with my knowledge and talents would have been picked 
by a governor or an emperor to be his adviser. 

liao: With your advanced age, you are still filled with ambition. It's 
really admirable. 

HUANG: I was very ambitious, but, as you know, I haven't had too much 
luck in this life because the feng shui surrounding my ancestors' tombs 
doesn’t have any extraordinary features. I’ve spent several years study- 
ing and surveying this region, and finally located a precious spot where 
the floating dragon falls between the penholder. Based on my astro- 
logical calculations, the Huang family will prosper after I depart from 
this world. 

liao: Could you explain a little more? I’m confused by the "floating 
dragon falls between the penholder” line. 

huang: You know the mountain range here is called the Mountains of 
Penholders because there are three penholder-shaped mountains. I 
walked around the area with a compass many times. The spot for my 
tomb nestles right between the first penholder-shaped mountain and 

The Feng Shut Master 67 

the second. Also, if you use binoculars, you will see the Wu River 
wending its way through the same area between the first and second 
mountain. In many ancient Chinese legends, the Wu River harbors a 
floating dragon. A poet once described the Wu River as “the floating 
dragon falls between the penholder.” Do you get it? 1 will reside in the 
same spot as the dragon, which will bless my future generations. Unfor- 
tunately, this treasured spot has not been discovered yet. Otherwise, 
with such good feng shui, this place should have produced an emperor. 
Sadly, the only famous thing we got here was a tribal headman. 

liao: Rack in the old days, a headman was quite powerful, like a little 
emperor who could get away with anything. Legend has it that the local 
headman had seventy-two tombs built all over the region with the same 
designs. He had those fake tombs constructed to confuse grave rob- 
bers. After he died, his descendants were instructed to murder or bury 
alive every single person at his funeral, including the coffin bearers. As 
a result, his tomb still remains a mystery and nobody knows which one 
of the seventy-two tombs is the authentic site. Countless numbers of 
grave diggers have combed through the area to locate the headman’s 
body and the treasures buried with him. So, based on your calcula- 
tions, its fairly likely that the real tomb could be right here, under our 

huang: 1 don’t think that headman's final resting place is somewhere 
around this prime spot. Otherwise, his descendants would have made 
it big. Well, on the other hand, he might have picked a good feng shui 
spot, but the natural and physical environment has changed. The good 
feng shui might have evaporated. 

liao: Now that you mention it, I have noticed that the feng shui around 
here is really good. Look at the setting sun, resting glowingly between 
the two penholders. There is a nice heavenly breeze now. I can even 
smell a subtle fragrance. 

huang: The scents actually come from the herbs that I have planted. 
The soil is so fertile. I planted over twenty different kinds of herbs 
in the springtime, and by summer leaves are sprouting all over the 
place. These herbs are more filling than crops. When I'm hungry, I sim- 



ply harvest some herbs and chew them. The feeling of hunger will 
be gone right away. If you get some of these herbs, you can mash them 
into a thick paste and smear them around your mouth, your ears, under 
your armpits, and around your asshole. It will help prevent illness 
and drive away all sorts of bugs and evil spirits. Nowadays, 1 go days 
without eating. I simply sleep inside my tomb. My tomb is very 
dark inside. If a bug gets into my mouth, I can catch it with my teeth. 
Those earthworms taste pretty good. Snakes or scorpions are all scared 
of me. 

liao: Those snakes and scorpions are dangerous. 

huang: Nowadays, people are more poisonous than snakes or scorpi- 
ons. In the sixties and seventies, people hurt one another as a result of 
Mao's political campaigns. In the nineties, people hurt one another in 
order to make more money. People are so degraded and selfish. Confu- 
cius used to call China a nation of formalities and kindness. 

liao: Sounds like you are still smarting from the experience with the 
township chief. Can I go take a look at your tomb? 

huang: That’s top secret and I wouldn’t allow anyone to see where my 
tomb is. I have spent years building it. For an old guy like me, it’s no 
easy job. Since you are so persistent, let me give you a rough idea 
where it is. Look at that huge rock near the cliff. Half of it sticks out in 
midair. The base of that rock is surrounded by many smaller ones. All 
the rocks are connected seamlessly, as if they are bonded together with 
cement. Nobody knows that there is actually a secret tunnel under the 
rocks that can reach my tomb. It used to be a tiger’s den. In 1961, a 
male tiger roamed around on this mountain. One day, the tiger became 
desperately hungry because most of the trees had been cut down and 
all the small animals killed. So the tiger went down to the villages for 
human prey. All the villagers came out with torches, beat their gongs, 
and chased the tiger all the way up to the mountain. They cornered the 
tiger near that rock. With no way to escape, he climbed up on top of 
the rock, jumped into the ravine, and killed himself. The villagers 
retrieved the tiger’s body, skinned him, and barbecued the meat. Over 
a hundred people showed up and each one got a small piece to munch 

The Feng Shui Master 69 

on. Later on, I heard that was the last tiger in the border region 
between Sichuan and Guizhou. After the tiger was killed, I went back 
to the rock and discovered his den, which was about twenty meters 
deep. So I dug a tunnel under it and converted the den into my tomb. 
Since then, I go stay there for a couple of days every month. I enjoy 
staying there because Ruan Hongyu is lying somewhere nearby. With 
her company, my nostalgia for this world is being diminished day by day. 

liao: Ruan Hongyu? 

huang: Do you remember the courtyard house by the side of this road? 
That was Ruan's house. 

liao: Of course. She was a famous blind singer and had a great voice. I 
visited her once. She was in her eighties and her singing was as vibrant 
as that of an eighteen-year-old. I used to put a tape recorder in front of 
her and tape her singing folk songs. She would sing one song after 
another for hours. 

huang: Yes, that was her. She has been dead for six years. 

liao: What happened to her house? 

huang: The courtyard has long been demolished. Ruan was a tough 
woman and she has become pretty dominant in the world of the dead. 
When a dead person is too strong, she affects the energy flow. The liv- 
ing will suffer. Her descendants had to move to find a new place so 
they could breathe. 

liao: Was there anything going on between you two? 

huang: I pursued her when we were both young. I’m three years her 
junior. We used to sing love songs to each other from across the moun- 
tain peaks. She was a pretty mountain flower and had many suitors. 
When it came to singing folk songs, nobody was her match. Singing 
folk songs from mountain peaks is a traditional courting ritual in the 
region. A boy and a girl sing to each other from separate mountain 
peaks all night long. It is like a contest. If the boy can defeat the girl, 


7 ° 

she will be his. I only competed with Ruan for half of the night and 
then acknowledged defeat. She lost both of her eyes during the Cul- 
tural Revolution. The Red Guards beat her up for singing decadent 
love songs. She was very stubborn and competitive all her life, but 
never made it big outside the area. So, after she passed away, I picked 
a nice resting place for her. The spot is close by and is very auspicious, 
better than the plot where her husband is buried. 

liao: She was married to someone else? 

huang: I think she married the wrong person. I wanted to borrow the 
teng shui trom the world of the dead to correct her mistakes. 

liao: She is dead. How can you correct her mistakes? 

huang: I wanted us to be husband and wife in the other world. 

liao: You are like the legendary Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, who 
didn’t get to live in the same house when they were alive, but ended up 
buried inside the same grave. 

huang: You can think whatever you want. I will join Ruan Hongyu in 
her grave. After we reunite in our afterlife, our family fortune will defi- 
nitely take a turn for the better. As the saying goes, “When the floating 
dragon falls between the penholder, it heralds the thunderous rising of 
three generations. Within three generations, the Huang family should 
be able to produce a regional lord, with thousands of acres of land 
bestowed on him by the government. 

liao: Okay. But, Master, how could you share such good feng shui with 
an outsider like Ruan Hongyu? Aren’t you married yourself? 

huang: I was. My wife died in the i960 famine. Millions of people died 
from starvation that year. There was no way for me to afford a tomb 
with good feng shui. I just randomly found a spot, dug a shallow hole in 
the ground, and buried her. As you can tell, she was horn poor and died 
poor. With her bad karma, she could spoil the good feng shui for my 
descendants if I'm buried with her after I die. I lowever, if I’m buried 

7 1 

The Feng Shui Master 

alone, the yin and yang won't be in harmony. For this reason, I have to 
join Ruan Hongyu after death. 

liao: 1 m so confused by your idea of using Ruan Hongyu to benefit your 

huang: Lao Tse, the founder of Taoism, once said: If you can explain 
what the way is, it is no longer the good way. Therefore, I cannot fully 
explain the mysterious karma that was bestowed on me and Ruan 

liao: Have you shared your afterlife marriage plan with your family? As 
you probably know, you have no control once you die. Also, I don't 
think Ruans family will allow you two to be buried together. 

huang: This matter concerns the well-being of many generations to 
come. I will certainly tell the children of both families. I think they will 
understand. Actually, 1 have long prepared for our afterlife together. I’m 
going to let Ruan occupy this spot first. In this way, if our children do 
not respect my will after I die ... I would move in myself when I’m still 

liao: I think they will freak out if they know about your plan. 

huang: I have done enough for my children and it’s time they under- 
stood me. My children have moved to the township. They are now liv- 
ing crammed inside the tall buildings with their kids on a noisy street. 

I like peace and quiet and refused to go with them. I m an old man and 
I don t want to be a burden to them. Also, once Ruan Hongyu was 
gone, my only reason to live in this world was also gone. Even though I 
still helped people with their feng shui designs, my soul had already 
left. At the moment, my life is coming to an end, reaching zero. Zero is 
nature. The mountain is my home. 

liao: Master Huang, its not like we still live in ancient China, where 
you can find a remote place to live like a hermit. The mountain here, 
the river there, none of the pristine scenery will last. Soon, a developer 
will come and convert the area into a tourist site. If tourism business is 



good, I bet they will build a big entrance at the foot of the mountain, 
and market it as a newly discovered forest park. People would come 
from all corners of China on boats or by air. It’s hard to believe that 
your tomb can remain hidden and the good feng shui can remain intact 
for twenty years after that. 

huang: Your mind is filled with many inauspicious thoughts. You'd bet- 
ter go visit your friend in the village. It’s getting late. 


In the spring of 2003, while climbing Fengqi Mountain, about 
sixty kilometers west of Chengdu, my friends and I stumbled 
upon an ancient Buddhist temple hidden in a thicket of trees. 
Guangyan Temple, also known as the Gu Temple, harkens 
back to the Sui dynasty (581-618 ad). Built on the slopes of a 
mountain, the temple is divided into two parts: an upper and a 
lower section. In the upper section, 1 encountered a scene of 
neglect: overgrown plots of grass, and crumbling pagodas, 
which housed the bones of deceased Buddhists. Two halls of 
worship were in ruins. In contrast, the lower section was abuzz 
with the noise of activity generated by a long stream' of worship- 
pers and tourists. The chanting and the strong smell of incense 
wafting from the newly renovated halls reminded me of its 
recent prosperity. 

The then 105-year-old Master Deng Kuan was the abbot in 
the Gu Temple. He lived in a spartan room at the back of the 
lower courtyard. Unlike those abbots in the movies, Master 
Deng Kuan didn't look distinguished at all: he was short, with 
small eyes, and always wore a yellowish woolen hat. He had to 
sit by an electric heater all the time because he was extremely 
sensitive to cold. The master was a heavy smoker and puffed on 
his tobacco pipe every few minutes. At the urging of his 
nephew, he also took a couple of sips of milk through a straw. 
He was extremely hard of hearing. Each time I asked a ques- 
tion, I had to shout in his ear. Eventually, after much shouting, 
coupled with occasional interpretations by his nephew, I man- 
aged to piece together this interview. 

In September of 2005, one year after this interview was 
completed, I read in a local newspaper that Master Deng Kuan 
had passed away. 



liao yiwu : Master, you look really good, very healthy. 

master deng kuan (dk): I was just hospitalized for two months in 
Chengdu. I’m falling apart. My body is stiff. Amitabha, Merciful Bud- 
dha. Now that I can’t move around that much, 1 have a lot of time for 
meditating and thinking. I’ve been thinking a lot about the things that 
have happened to me in this life. Unfortunately, I’m only lucid half of 
the time. Some days, I'm so out of it that 1 have no idea where I am, 
what day it is, and who is standing beside me. 

Have you read anything about our temple? In the Ming dynasty 
[1368-1644], Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang gifted this temple with an offi- 
cial name, “Guangyan Buddhist Temple.” Later on, Master Wu Kong, 
Emperor Zhu’s uncle, became enlightened at this temple. If we count 
him as our first abbot, I’m now the eighth abbot in the past six hundred 

I was born in 1900 when China was still under the Qing emperor 
Guangxu. My secular name was Chen Jingrong. Since my family was 
poor, my parents sent me to this temple at the age of seven so I could 
get fed. So that was how I started out as a monk. My teacher, Master 
Zu Run, was an eminent monk in the region. He was well-known for 
his knowledge and his righteousness. Apart from teaching me the Bud- 
dhist scriptures, he also invited scholars to the temple to teach all the 
young novices how to read and write. Thanks to him, 1 grasped the 
basic literacy skills in a few years. 

In 1928, I walked over ninety kilometers to Chengdu to get 
ordained in a big temple there. Following my ordination, I was enrolled 
at a Buddhist school run by Master Chan An. After I graduated in 1930, 
I studied at two more temples, and continued to receive guidance from 
various eminent monks. In 1944, after a decade and a half of traveling 
and studying, I returned to the Gu Temple. Initially, I worked as an offi- 
cial greeter, coordinating daily worshipping activities. In 1947, I was 
promoted to be the abbot. I stayed in that position until the Commu- 
nist takeover in 1949. 

liao: Your life has spanned the entire twentieth century. If we use 1949 
as a dividing line, your life is pretty much divided into two equal 
phases. But you seem to play down the first half of your life with only a 
couple of sentences. 

The Abbot 


dk: When you turn one hundred, and look back on the early part of your 
life, a couple of sentences are sufficient. Otherwise, I can go on for 
three days and three nights. I have personally benefited from the teach- 
ings of over thirty grand masters of Buddhism. You could write a whole 
book about every single one of them. 

liao: Sorry for the interruption. Please go on with your story. 

dk: This temple was first built during the Sui dynasty. Since then, over 
thirty convents and temples have been built along the Qingcheng 
mountain range, with Gu Temple as the main center of worship. At one 
time, this temple housed over a thousand monks. Over the centuries, 
as old dynasties collapsed and new ones came into being, the temple 
remained relatively intact. This is because changes of dynasty or gov- 
ernment were considered secular affairs. Monks like me didn’t get 
involved. But the Communist revolution in 1949 was a turning point for 
me and the temple. 

After 1949, the new government launched the Land Reform move- 
ment. Many former landowners in the region were targeted. Several 
were executed, their property seized and redistributed. One day, a gov- 
ernment work team raided the temple. The team consisted of govern- 
ment officials and peasant activists. They set up a tribunal inside the 
temple to dispense justice. They called me a "rich temple owner” and 
declared that I was under arrest. My captors dragged me onto the 
stage, stripped me of my kasaya, and forced me to stand in front of a 
large crowd of villagers, with my arms pulled up behind my back in the 
jet-plane position. One by one, peasant activists stood up to share with 
the crowd about my “crimes.” 1 was accused of accumulating wealth 
without engaging in physical labor, and spreading feudalistic and reli- 
gious ideas that poisoned people's minds. Some even suggested investi- 
gating my past activities under the Nationalist government because I 
was collaborating with the rich to exploit the poor. At the end of each 
speech, the head of the work team would stand up and shout slogans 
like Down with the evil landlord! and Religion is spiritual opium!” 
Then the whole crowd followed his lead with slogan shouting. Emotion 
soon ran very high: people spat at me, punched and shoved me. About 
thirty to forty monks were hunched over side by side with me on the 
stage. They were categorized as "bald lackeys of the rich landowner.” 
The landowner was, of course, me. 


liao: This is the first time I heard about the term “rich monk." 

dk: It came as a shock to me as well and it was hard to cope with those 
unfair charges. All monks abide by the vow of poverty. In the pre- 
Communist days, many of us came from very poor families. Once we 
accepted the teachings of Buddha, we vowed to stay away from all 
human desires. In this vast province of Sichuan, there were over a hun- 
dred temples. No matter which temple you go to, you will find the same 
rule: monks pass on the Buddhist treasures from one generation to the 
next. Since ancient times, no abbot, monk, or nun has ever claimed the 
properties of the temple as his or her own. Who would have thought 
that overnight all of us would be classified as rich landowners! None of 
us had ever lived the life of a rich landowner, hut we certainly suffered 
the retribution accorded one. 

liao: What happened after those “struggle sessions”? 

dk: Soon the struggle sessions turned into public beatings. Getting spat 
on, slapped in the face, and kicked in the back were common occur- 
rences. Many times the local militia would show up at the temple at 
random and drag me to a room for interrogation. During one interroga- 
tion in the wintertime, a village militia chief and his men stripped me 
of my shirts and pants, and then hung me from the ceiling. It was so 
painful that I passed out in about ten minutes or so. They poured cold 
water onto my body. When I came to, my right arm was dislocated. 
Even today I still experience excruciating pain when I try to raise this 
arm. Sometimes I was beaten up for some ridiculous reasons. One 
time, an official called me to his office and ordered me to turn in one 
hundred golden bowls that I had allegedly hidden inside the temple. 
The official said a junior monk had revealed the secret to the work 
team. I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn’t even own a reg- 
ular porcelain bowl, not to mention a bowl made of gold. When I told 
them that I didn’t know, they accused me of lying and hung me from a 
tree. Then, several villagers went to search the monks’ living quarters. 
Believe it or not, they did find one hundred bowls in the corner of the 
kitchen. To their disappointment, however, they were bowls made of 
pottery, not gold. Finally, I understood what the whole fuss was about. 
Since each bowl could hold only one jin [500 grams] of rice, we called 

The Ahhot 


it the “jin bowl" — which sounds the same as “gold bowls” in Chinese. 
The situation was truly hopeless. 

By the way, during the Land Reform movement, the local govern- 
ment seized all the Buddhist treasures and confiscated hundreds of 
hectares of pristine forest and farmland from the temple. We were not 
alone. Temples around the whole country suffered a similar fate. 

liao: I have checked some historical records and found that many 
prominent monks suffered persecution during that time. For example, 
Master Kuan Lin from Chengdu s Wenshu Temple was brutally tor- 
tured by local peasants. They broke his legs and arms, and pulled his 
teeth out. He collapsed and passed out on the floor. His torturers 
thought they had killed him. Out of fear, they sent him to the hospital, 
and luckily the doctors were able to save his life. Master Qing Ding at 
Zhaojue Temple was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment in 1955. That 
was because he had been a cadet in the Huangpu Military Academy 
under the Nationalist government before he became a monk. He 
ended up spending twenty years behind bars. Master Wei Xian, the for- 
mer abbot at the Ciyun Temple near Chongqing, was arrested in 1954 
for his efforts to establish a Buddhist school. He was jailed for twenty- 
seven years. The list goes on. 

dk: The Land Reform movement was just the beginning of a series of 
disasters that befell the temple. In 1958, Chairman Mao launched the 
Great Leap Forward campaign, calling people in China to find ways to 
mass-produce iron and steel so China could catch up with industrial- 
ized nations like the U.S. It was also the beginning of the collectiviza- 
tion campaign. No household was allowed to keep any private property 
or to cook at home. People were ordered to eat at communal kitchens 
and dining halls. 

1 put myself at the mercy of heaven and decided to go with the flow. 

I registered with the local village leader, who gave me permission to 
lead ten monks to look for iron-containing rocks in the mountain, and 
to participate in the production of steel. Peasants built a makeshift fur- 
nace inside the temple. We were a bunch of laymen and had no idea 
what an iron-containing ore looked like or how to produce steel from 
those rocks. The government sent a young scientist, who gave us a 
quick thirty-minute crash course. Then, confident in their newly 


acquired knowledge, people rolled up their sleeves and worked in 
groups to scout the mountain for iron-containing rocks. Many villagers 
ended up by gathering lots of dark-colored rocks and stones, and 
dumped them into the furnace. 

Meanwhile, the local government also called on people to donate 
every piece of metal they had in their homes: farm tools, cooking uten- 
sils, basins, locks, metal hoops, even women's hair clips, and to melt 
them down to produce steel and iron. There was a popular slogan: To 
turn in one piece of metal is to wipe out a foreign imperialist. We 
monks didn't even have a home, but we didn’t want to lag behind the 
others. We sniffed around the temple like dogs. We found incense 
holders, metal collection boxes, hells, and locks. We pried and ham- 
mered off the metal edges of the wooden incense tables, and even 
smashed and knocked down the small bronze statues on the four cor- 
ners of the temple roof. 

Near the entrance of the temple, there used to be a pair of royal 
cast-iron cauldrons given by Emperor Yongle in the Ming dynasty. 
None of it survived the Great Leap Forward. Since the royal cauldrons 
were huge, made with thick cast iron, it took over twenty strong and 
tough men to smash them with large sledgehammers. The loud echoes 
of the hammering sound could be heard miles away. Besides, melting 
those thick, ancient cast-iron pots was no easy job. People chopped 
down hundreds of big trees to fuel the furnace. 

It wasn't long before the mountain was stripped bare. When I first 
entered the monastery here, there were hundreds of hectares of trees, 
many of which were rare species, such as ginkgo, nanmu, and ancient 
cypress. But during those crazy years, they were all cut down. Have you 
seen that big thousand-year-old tree outside the temple? The tree was 
left untouched because it grew on a cliff and people couldn’t reach it. 
Nowadays, visitors have been telling me how precious and beautiful 
that tree is. Little do they know that there used to be seven big trees 
around here, each was thick enough for three people to circle around. 
That one left was the ugliest and quite useless. The other six were cut 
to feed the furnace. 

It’s really hard to imagine what happened then. People were exhila- 
rated by Chairman Maos lofty vision of building a strong socialist 
country. 1 was assigned the task of working the bellows to keep the fire 
in the furnace going. 1 used to practice kung fu at the crack of dawn 

The Ahhot 


every day to stay fit and healthy. That rigorous training helped build up 
my stamina. While most people were on the verge of exhaustion and 
some had even collapsed, I was still full of energy, working the bellows 
nonstop for hours in a half-squatting position beside the furnace. 

liao: You were almost sixty years old around that time, weren't you? 

dk: Yes, I was. But even the twenty-year-olds were no match for me. Vil- 
lagers secretly gave me a nickname, “The Steely Mountain Soldier.” 
Anyway, after days and nights of hard work, we finally saw some 
results — a bunch of hard irregular-shaped pig iron. Some looked like 
beehives, with small pieces of rocks sticking over their surfaces. We 
waited until those lumps became cold and solid. Then we tested their 
quality by hitting them with a hammer. Guess what, they immediately 
crumbled into small dark pieces. So did our hope. 

liao: Since you worked so hard during the Great Leap Forward, did the 
villagers think that you had redeemed your past wrongdoings? 

dk: Not exactly. After the steel production campaign turned into a total 
failure, people resumed their daily routine. At night, after eating at 
public kitchens, they had nothing else to do. Once again, public rallies 
against the bad elements were resumed as a form of entertainment. We 
were at the whim of the village leaders. Whenever or wherever they 
wanted to hold a struggle session, all of the class enemies would be at 
their disposal, from 1952. to 1961, I attended over three hundred strug- 
gle sessions. 

In those difficult years, I constantly thought about a legendary tale 
relating to the Gu Temple. In 1398, when Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder 
of the Ming dynasty, died, his grandson Jianwen was crowned emperor. 
Jianwens uncle, the prince of Yan, possessed a strong military base in 
the north and formed a serious threat to Emperor Jianwen s power. 
They engaged in a four-year armed conflict that eventually ended the 
reign of Jianwen. The prince of Yan usurped the throne. He called his 
era Yongle or “Perpetually Jubilant." Emperor Yongle spent several 
years purging China of Jianwens supporters in a brutal manner. His 
nephew, the deposed ruler, escaped and then disappeared. Several 
years later, there was a rumor circulating that Jianwen had turned into 



a monk and was hiding inside the Gu Temple. One day, a spy dis- 
patched by Emperor Yongle spotted the deposed emperor and relayed 
the news to the palace. The emperor immediately sent an assassin over. 
Right before the assassin arrived, Jianwen caught wind of it and disap- 
peared. His would-be assassin found a poem written on the wall of a 
worship hall: “Traversing the southwest in exile for forty long years, 
gray has tainted my once dark mane. Heaven and earth I once reigned, 
but now nothing remains. Not even a hut to rest my soul. Rivers and 
streams pass by silently; where do they flow? Grass and willows turn 
green year after year; this old countryman is choked with tears.” The 
assassin jotted down the poem and presented it to Emperor Yongle. He 
read it aloud; tears streamed down his face. He waved the long sleeve 
of his robe and sighed: Let my nephew go. 

liao: What a story. How did that relate to your predicament then? 

dr: Emperor Yongle ruled China with brutality. His police and spies 
were planted all over the kingdom. Even so, Jianwen, his former neme- 
sis, could find shelter inside the Gu Temple. But in Communist China, 
a harmless monk had nowhere to escape to. 

liao: Chairman Mao certainly tried to wipe out the spirit of Buddha, 
and every other form of religion. 

dk: No human being possesses the power to destroy Buddha in people’s 
hearts. This is because Buddha is as essential to us as the air we 
breathe and the water we drink. That’s where all kindness, forbear- 
ance, compassion, and wisdom originate. I would never have survived 
that difficult period had it not been for my belief in Buddha. 

Let me tell you a story. A poor old lady named Wang lived near the 
temple. She secretly helped me for many years. Since I was a counter- 
revolutionary, she couldn’t talk with me when there were people 
around. While I was working in the field, she would walk past me, and 
stop briefly, pretending to tie her shoelaces. Then, she would bang her 
sickle on the ground a couple of times to get my attention. After she 
left, I would dash over to the place where she banged her sickle, and 
pick up the corn bread she had left there for me. It was in January of 
i960, the onset of a nationwide famine. Many folks in the village had 

The Ahhot 81 

already died of starvation. That lady squeezed food from her tiny ration 
and saved it for me. She was the reincarnation of the Goddess of 
Mercy. Even now, 1 can still remember her courage and generosity and 
pray for her soul. 

By 1961, half of the people labeled as members of the bad elements 
had starved to death, lo reduce the number of people on the food 
ration roll, the local government simply deported me back to my birth- 
place in Chongqing County. I moved in with a distant nephew and 
lived the life of a peasant. In 1966, when the Cultural Revolution 
began, the Red Guards took the place of the village militiamen and 
became my new tormentors. I worked in the rice paddies during day- 
time and was forced to attend public denunciation meetings at night. 

liao: So how did you manage to survive the various political campaigns? 

dk: Buddha says: II I don t go to hell, who will? I had to suffer to redeem 
the sins of my previous life. Otherwise, the suffering could befall 
someone else. That was how I motivated myself to live. Eventually, I 
simply resigned myself to adversity. 

In those years, the worst part was that all Buddhist teachings were 
banned. We were not allowed to pray. Sometimes I would close my 
eyes and silently chant some scriptures. But then some villagers found 
out and reported it to village officials. 1 ended up getting more beatings 
for retusing to mend my feudalistic, superstitious ways. 

liao: As an eminent monk, it must be very hard to live without praying 
or reading the scriptures. 

dk: It was difficult. Deep in my heart, I never gave up my belief in the 
benevolence of Buddha. 

For a while, I thought that I would be destined to farm and lead the 
life of a secret monk for the rest of my life. Elowever, after over seven- 
teen years, the tide started to turn. One day in 1978, a friend from out 
of town stopped by and told me that new leaders in Beijing had relaxed 
the government’s religious policy. People were allowed to openly prac- 
tice Buddhism. 

Initially, I didn’t quite believe his words and wanted to find out 
myself. But I didnt dare to tell anyone because the local government 


was still clinging to the old Communist doctrine, even though Chair- 
man Mao had died two years before. If I got caught, I was sure to get 
myself and my nephew into trouble again. So, 1 waited for a couple 
more days. One night, after the whole village was asleep, I quietly 
packed my bags and left. 1 ran and walked for about sixty kilometers in 
the darkness. By noon the next day, I arrived in Chengdu, and went 
directly to Wenshu Temple. There, I reunited with about thirty monks 
who had just returned. It was quite an emotional reunion for us. 

I stayed at Wenshu Temple for over three years, working as a 
greeter and presiding over Buddhist ceremonies. Since I was pretty 
good at performing the releasing the soul from purgatory" ritual, I 
gradually established quite a reputation in the region. In 1984 , 1 think it 
was on July 15 on the lunar calendar, I was welcomed back to the 
Gu Temple to continue my service to Buddha. Over ten thousand 
residents showed up and filled every corner of the temple. People 
lit firecrackers nonstop, and the smoke shrouded the temple like a 
thick fog, which lingered around for quite a while before drifting away. 
There were gongs booming and bells pealing. It was quite a festive 

liao: You were eighty-four years old that year. When you smelled the 
smoke of fireworks and saw the crowd, how did you feel? 

dk: My feelings were of joy and sadness mixed. From 1949 to 1978, 
China experienced the longest period of retribution for sins in history. 
For twenty-nine years, there were no real monks in Chinese temples. 

liao: But in those crazy years, the government still kept the Buddhism 

dk: The Buddhism Association was simply an empty shell. All the monks 
were defrocked and put under the supervision of the village party chief. 
In many small temples around here, lay peasants kicked the monks out 
and converted the temples into residential quarters. 

For myself, I felt lucky that I was still alive. I didn t have time to 
dwell on the past. I was already old and ailing like a candle’s flame flut- 
tering in the wind. The temple was in disarray with dilapidated build- 
ings and broken walls. Weeds were growing everywhere. I couldn’t find 

The Ahhot 83 

a single room without a leaking roof. Wherever I looked, I saw the 
tragic results of manmade damage and years of neglect. 

About thirty monks and lay Buddhists joined me at the temple. We 
didn’t even have enough beds. Many had to sleep on the floor. Occa- 
sionally, snakes and rats would sneak under our quilts. The young 
monks were very scared. I would often tell them: The rats are cold too. 
Let them in so they can get some warmth and good sleep. Even now, 
rats constantly get into my quilt, and a couple of them will snuggle 
under my chin. They are like my kids. One time, a naughty rat dragged 
my rosary beads away. So I scared it with the words: You little rascal, 
what do you need that rosary for? You can’t eat it. Bring it back. If you 
don’t, I’m going to kill you with rat poison. It must have heard me. Not 
long after, the rosary beads showed up beside my bed. 

liao: You have done a great job restoring the Gu Temple. 

dk: You are too young to see what the temple was like before. It’s 
far from being restored. Have you ever visited the upper part of the 

liao: Yes, I have. 

dk: The Receiving Hall is being reconstructed on its ruins. If you pass 
the crumbling Hall of Burning Candles, you will see the forest of pago- 
das, where generations of Buddhist monks were buried. The tall 
pagoda in the middle held the body of our grand master Wu Kong, the 
first abbot of this temple. Grand Master Wu Kong had seen through 
the secular world at an early age and had always wanted to be a monk. 
When the prince of Yan deposed Emperor Jianwen, the grand master 
was traveling in India and Tibet to study Buddhism. On his way back, 
he stopped at this temple and experienced enlightenment. He shaved 
his head and was ordained here. Grand Master Wu Kong read exten- 
sively and became a well-known Buddhist scholar and practitioner. He 
reached nirvana, and passed away while in meditation, with his body in 
a lotus position. His disciples consecrated the Wu Kong Pagoda to hold 
his body. After over 550 years, the body miraculously remained intact, 
with no signs of decay. It became the most precious Buddhist treasure 
inside the Gu Temple. 


LIAO: I stood in front of the Wu Kong Pagoda and noticed that the shrine 
lies empty now. The characters engraved on both sides of the shrine are 
hardly recognizable. 

dk: The characters were supposed to express the grand master's ecstatic 
feelings of being enlightened and coming to the realization that "all 
worldly things are empty and transient, like the floating clouds.” Dur- 
ing the Land Reform movement, a leader of the local militia led a group 
of armed peasants into the temple in the name of “eliminating supersti- 
tion." They started in the upper section. When the militia leader 
stopped in front of the Wu Kong Pagoda, he seemed to have been taken 
over by demonic forces. He raised his rifle with its bayonet, screaming, 
Kill that Buddha! He stabbed into the preserved body of the grand 
master twenty or thirty times. Soon, the rest of the mob joined him. 
Pieces of the grand master’s body were strewn on the ground. Then he 
ordered his fellow militiamen to round up all of the monks and parade 
us on the street for several hours. After we returned to the temple, we 
found out that the flesh on his body had already dissolved in the soil, 
leaving only his bones. When the bell struck midnight, I held back my 
tears, went secretly up to the forest of pagodas. It was painful to see his 
bones scattered on the ground. I quietly gathered every single piece 
and carefully put them in a bamboo basket. I found a place on the ceil- 
ing beam of the Guanyin Hall. With a makeshift pulley, 1 managed to 
send the basket up and put it on the beam. I thought it was going to be 
safe there, but I was wrong. 

During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards from the nearby 
schools launched an assault on what they called the Four Old Ele- 
ments: old customs, old thinking, old habits, and old culture. They ran- 
sacked the temples, burning and destroying anything that had survived 
the previous political campaigns, including the worshipping halls. 

Let me give you some background. In the Ming dynasty. Emperor 
Yongle had commissioned the construction of five halls of worship with 
glazed tile roofs. Despite their normal wear and tear, those buildings 
remained preserved and survived the craziness of the 1950s. One day in 
1966 1 snuck away from my hometown and climbed up the mountain to 
take a look at the temple. Before I approached the main entrance, 1 
heard the singing of revolutionary songs. There seemed to be a lot of 
people in there. I walked closer and hid behind a tree. There were red 

The Ahhot 85 

flags everywhere, with the characters “Revolutionary Fighters” embla- 
zoned on them. A large group of young people were on the roof of the 
Daxiong Hall — singing while pulling the glazed tiles out and then kick- 
ing them off the roof. I just stood there in a daze. After the roof had 
been stripped, the Red Guards began to punch holes in it. Inside the 
Daxiong Hall, there were eight floor-to-ceiling stone columns decorated 
with engravings of poems and paintings by well-known artists and cal- 
ligraphers. The Red Guards tied thick ropes around the columns and 
pulled the ropes in unison until the columns collapsed. It was too trau- 
matic for me. I just left. 

I was told later on that the Red Guards toppled the other four halls 
with similar barbarous methods. When those buildings collapsed, peo- 
ple could feel the vibrations from far away, as if an earthquake had hit 
the region. Like the ancient saying goes: “No eggs can remain intact 
when the nest is destroyed.” As 1 mentioned earlier, I put the bones of 
Grand Master Wu Kong in a basket and hid it on the ceiling beam of 
the Guanyin Hall. When the hall was demolished, the basket mysteri- 
ously disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to the treasure. 

Thanks to those young zealots, the whole upper section is now in 
total ruins. There is no way to rebuild those halls. In addition to demol- 
ishing the worshipping halls, the Red Guards also burned hundreds of 
royal edicts issued by emperors from various dynasties. They destroyed 
paintings by famous artists, as well as rare editions of books and scrip- 
tures, and smashed hundreds of Buddhist statues. 

liao: In other words, most of the buildings we see now have been recon- 
structed in recent years? 

dk: Since 1984, many pious Buddhist followers have begun to donate 
money and manpower. Little by little, we are able to build new worship 
halls and sculpt new Buddhist statues. It is starting to look like a tem- 
ple now. Let me tell you: It will take at least 20 million yuan [US$2.4 
million] just to restore half of the temple to its original scale. You know 
the saying: The fire burns high when everyone adds wood to it. We 
have set up a stone tablet, engraving the names of those who have con- 
tributed over 100 yuan [$12]. There are several thousand names on the 
tablet. A private entrepreneur has recently donated 30,000 yuan 
[US$3,500] to dedicate a jade Buddha statue in the newly built Receiv- 



ing Hall. We have other revenues from the sale of incense and candles, 
as well as from our teahouse. 

uao: Do monks have to pay taxes? 

dk: We wouldn't mind paying regular government taxes. But with the 
decline of moral values, corrupt officials, both big and small, are trying 
to milk what they think is a fat cow. Administratively, our temple is 
under the supervision of the Bureau of Religious Affairs, which is a 
subsidiary of the Department of United Front. Officials there are 
always looking out for ways to fatten their pockets. If we don't pay 
money as a tribute to those “servants of the people,” they will threaten 
either to expel monks from the temple or to sell part of our temple to a 
private developer. As you know, many small temples in the area that 
resisted have been sold to private investors. 

liao: You are a well-known religious figure in the community. How 
could they dare to do those things to you? 

dk: Those Communist officals dare to do anything. Do you want to hear 
this? The car driven by the director of the United Front Department 
was paid for by the monks. He ordered each temple to contribute at 
least 5,000 yuan [US$625] so he could buy a luxury model. One time, 
the head of the county Religious Affairs Bureau visited me. 1 invited 
him to have tea at my private living quarters. He slammed the door 
shut, banged on the table, and pointed at my face: You turned a deaf 
ear to my request. 1 want your temple to contribute 100,000 yuan 
[US$12,500] to the road construction fund. 1 knew very well that the 
central government had already allocated funds for the road project. 
Local officials had embezzled a large portion of the money. They 
wanted the monks to fill in the funding gap. 

liao: You could report him to the central government or sue him, 
couldn’t you? 

dk: Monks take forbearance as a virtue. So I told the official: Monks beg 
alms. We rely on the kind contributions of Buddha’s followers. We ll 
pay when our collection reaches the amount you have requested. He 

The Abbot 87 

responded impatiently: Give me a deadline. I said calmly: If we can 
collect the sum tomorrow, we'll give it to you tomorrow. If we have it in 
the indefinite future, we II pay you in the indefinite future. Upon hear- 
ing that, he became furious and began to swear at me with four-letter 
words. His loud swearing was heard by many worshippers in the tem- 
ple. Several of them stormed in and eventually kicked him out. Corrup- 
tion is a sin, but Buddha has mercy. 

A couple of months ago, some officials showed up and set up their 
mah-jongg tables right inside the temple. They played that gambling 
game all day. Some ended up losing money. They walked into my room 
and wanted to get a loan from me. I did "lend" some to them. You know 
they will never pay back. Besides, they made a mess here, with food 
and cigarettes butts all over the floor. Before they left, they came to the 
worshipping hall, put their two hands in front of their chest, palm to 
palm, and knelt in front of a Buddha statue, chanting, "Amitabha,” 
Those scoundrels, what can you do? Right now, the Religious Affairs 
Bureau takes charge of all Buddhist, Taoist, and Muslim temples, as 
well as the Christian churches. The officials are so powerful, and can 
destroy you at a whim. The chief of the Religious Affairs Bureau 
shamelessly calls himself the parent of all gods. Many people use the 
phrase covering the sky with one palm to describe the government 
power over religion. 

liao: This is ridiculous. 

dk: Throughout ancient history, no matter how incompetent the emper- 
ors were, or how corrupt and decadent the royal courts became, one 
never heard about officials blackmailing and harassing monks. 

liao: This is the first time I have heard about it, too. 

dk: With all of this corruption going on, I don’t know when I will be able 
to raise enough money to pay for the restoration. I just have to let 
nature take its course. 

liao: But, Master, you have already done a great job in restoring the 
temple to its former glory. You are now considered a Buddhist treasure 
in this whole region. 



DK: That’s an exaggeration. Have you seen the newly restored Scripture 

liao: I’ve seen the outside, the white walls with black tiled roof. The 
building reflects the simplicity of the Tang dynasty [618-907] archi- 
tectural style. I was told that the name engraved on the front of the 
building was given by Yu Youren, a well-known politician under the 
Nationalist government. His handwriting was far superior to those of 
Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and Qing emperor Kang Xi, both of 
whom left their marks here. 

dk: Mr. Yu Youren was climbing the Qingcheng Mountain in 1944. He 
overheard some monks talk about a Buddhist encyclopedia. The book, 
published in 1372, was a compilation of well-known Buddhist writings 
in seven thousand volumes. The whole project took thirty-one years to 
finish. Several hundred scholars and craftsmen were involved in the 
editing, hand-printing, and volume-binding of the book. Emperor Zhu 
Yuanzhang ordered two sets, each of which weighed over three tons. 
One set was lost in a major fire. The second set was stored here inside 
the Gu Temple. This Buddhist encyclopedia and Grand Master Wu 
Kong's preserved body were the crown jewels of this temple, attracting 
Buddhists and scholars from all over the nation. The legendary tales 
surrounding this rare book greatly piqued Mr. Yu’s curiosity. He came 
into the temple and spent several days poring over the book. When the 
former abbot asked him to write a couple of words, he raised his ink 
brush and with one long stroke he wrote, “Scripture Building.” His 
calligraphy, like a flying dragon, was later engraved on the building’s 
front wall. 

liao: With your permission, may I go up to the building and take a look 
at the book? 

dk: The book is no longer here. 

liao: Has it been destroyed by the Red Guards? 

dk: Amitabha. No. In the summer of 1951, Yao Tixin, an intellectual, was 
appointed the Chongqing County chief. He had read about the book 

The Ahhot 89 

in the county almanac. Shortly after his appointment, he visited the 
temple and went up to the Scripture Building to examine the treasure. 
It was in the middle of the Land Reform movement. Many monks 
had been banished to the countryside, and I was going through those 
struggle sessions. Yao emerged from the building and issued an order 
to his subordinates: Since the abbot has been declared an enemy of 
the people, the temple doesn't have the manpower and resources to 
maintain custody of this rare, voluminous treasure. The building will 
be sealed. He then invited some experts from Chengdu to make an 
appraisal. After they confirmed that the books were authentic, he 
packed the volumes into boxes and mobilized over a hundred porters to 
carry those boxes on shoulder poles — three tons total — all the way to 
the Sichuan Provincial Library in Chengdu. It’s been there for over fifty 

liao: Thank Buddha that the book was protected. Otherwise, it would 
not have escaped the fire of the Red Guards. 

dk: County Chief Yao must have been the reincarnation of a Buddhist 
guardian warrior. Other government officials were not as farsighted as 
he was. 

liao: During the past several hundred years, how did the monks manage 
to keep the book of scriptures from decaying? 

dk: Once a year, all the monks in the temple would gather and bring 
those volumes out under the sun. Our method was quite primitive. We 
were not allowed to touch the pages with our hands. We used a thin 
bamboo sliver to carefully turn over every single page to allow the 
mustiness to escape. Then we would put special tobacco leaves 
inside the book to prevent book-eating moths. Several hundred pounds 
of tobacco leaves were brought in every year. Airing the book was 
an annual tradition that had been passed down from generation to 

liao: Now that things have gradually returned to normal and there are 
no more political campaigns, are you planning to move the book back? 


9 ° 

dk: In the past, it was the crown jewel of the temple. Now, it's a national 
treasure. Any request to transfer the book has to be approved by the 
State Council. 

liao: Aren’t you allowed to take a peek at it? 

dk: There are all sorts of rules, and I haven’t had the luck to revisit the 
book yet. But the rigorous system put in place has not been foolproof. 
A monk in Peng County managed to use 12,000 yuan [US$1,500] to 
bribe the curator. He then made a pirated copy of one volume and sold 
it overseas. I heard he made quite a fortune. I have gathered several 
abbots in the region and made a plea to the provincial government, say- 
ing that the temple should own the copyright to the book. Nobody lis- 
tened to us. 

liao: I don’t think staff members at the Sichuan Provincial Library will 
do the book-airing ritual and put tobacco leaves inside each volume 
every year. I wonder what will happen to the book. 

dk: Everything has its preordained fate. We just have to let it go. By the 
way, you sound like someone who truly possesses the mind of an intel- 
lectual. Let me give you a picture as a gift. This is the picture of the 
body of Grand Master Wu Kong. The photographer’s Buddhist name 
was Xu Kong, and he used to live in Gu township at the foot of the 
mountain. In the 1940s, he was the first in the region to purchase an 
old magnesium flash camera. He carried the camera to the temple and 
took a picture of Grand Master Wu Kong’s body. He then sold the pic- 
ture to a newspaper and the picture got lots of attention from the pub- 
lic. He eventually used this picture as a passport to visit Tibet because 
Tibetans were pious Buddhists and they worshipped Grand Master 
Wu Kong. When the Tibetan guards saw the picture, they all pros- 
trated themselves on the ground to show respect. Guess what, he used 
his special status to travel back and forth between Tibet and Sichuan 
Province smuggling opium. He was never caught. During the Cultural 
Revolution, he was persecuted for his association with the temple. 
Other people also reported his opium-trafficking business to the 
authorities. The Red Guards tortured and locked him up in solitary 
confinement for several years. But he never admitted that he was the 

The Abbot 

9 1 

photographer for Grand Master Wu Kong’s picture. The day before he 
died, he sent his. relatives to look for me in my hometown. I did go see 
him. After I arrived, his eyes were wide open and he was gasping for 
breath. I held his hands, one of which was making a fist like a ball. He 
murmured to me: 'Wu Kong, Wu Kong." Tears streamed down his 
cheeks. He then opened his fist and handed me a tiny negative, 
wrapped with layers of soft tissue and cotton. Before I even had the 
chance to say anything to him, he was gone. 

This picture has been around for sixty years. Look at Grand Master 
Wu Kong and how well his body was preserved — his face looked so 
kind and calm, his two earlobes hanging low, he looked divine. 

liao: You have so many amazing stories. By the way, I have seen a por- 
trait of Communist leader Deng Xiaoping in the hall for worship. He is 
not a Buddhist. Why do you put his picture up there? 

dk: Without Deng Xiaoping, the temple would have been gone. He was 
the one who reversed Mao’s fanatical policies in the late 1970s, opened 
up China to the outside world, and relaxed government control over 

liao: During the past hundred years, you have experienced many ups 
and downs. You can t attribute all your sufferings to karma and to the 
retribution of sins in our previous life, can you? 

dk: I have lived for over a hundred years. I’m gradually ambling my way 
to the ritual of reincarnation. As a Buddhist, one needs to contain dis- 
pleasure, anger, and complaining. I have tried to abide by these princi- 
ples during the past decades and try not to dwell on my past. In recent 
years, many of the villagers who participated in torturing me have come 
to seek help because they are poverty-stricken and can’t send their 
grandchildren to school. I have given them money and support. The 
money is not mine. It was raised from Buddha's followers. It’s a sin to 
keep the money. I remember very well what those villagers did to me in 
the past, but I don’t harbor any ill will toward them. When you start to 
blame and hate people, retribution will befall you. 

Remember that local militia leader who committed the atrocities 
on Grand Master Wu Kong’s preserved body many years ago? He was 



so evil and full of hatred. Several years later, someone told me that the 
militia leader had found a big lump growing on his groin. He traveled 
all over in search of a cure but nobody could help. Eventually, his lower 
body became rotten and foul-smelling. He died a most wretched death. 
After he was gone, his wife and children starved to death during the 
famine in i960. It was very sad. But how do you explain this phenome- 


I first hea rd of composer Wang Xilin in 2001 when I was in Bei- 
jing for a hook release party. While I was chatting with friends, 
Wang’s name came up because the Beijing Municipal Govern- 
ment had just banned his concert series. Liang Heping, a guest 
I met at the party, had known the composer for many years. This 
is what Liang told me: 

The Cultural Department of the Beijing Municipal Gov- 
ernment had signed a contract with Wang Xilin in 19 97, prom- 
ising to raise funds and host a series of concerts featuring the 
composer's symphonies in 2000. Over the years, preparations 
went smoothly A well-known Swedish violinist had been 
invited to grace the opening in Beijing. 

At about 9 a.m., November 24, 2000, the rehearsal was 
about to start. As a courtesy, Conductor Tan Lihua invited 
Wang to say a few words to members of the orchestra. Wang, 
dressed up nicely for the occasion, walked up to the stage and 
declared in his resounding voice: The twentieth century is 
finally behind us. In the past hundred years, we witnessed many 
unforgettable events, such as the two world wars and the great 
many innovations in science and technology. However, I believe 
that the biggest event in the twentieth century is the fact that 
Communism has been painstakingly pursued and then relent- 
lessly abandoned by mankind. Wang's remarks met total 
silence, but he was too preoccupied to even notice the shocked 
reaction. He bowed politely and exited the stage. 

One week later, authorities in Beijing suddenly notified 
him that his concerts had been canceled. It was then that Wang 
realized the stinging consequences of his big mouth. He 
stormed into Liang's home, stamped his feet, and said regret- 
fully: Damn, I should have added “except in China" to my 
statement . . . 

During the Chinese New Year in 2004, I had the opportu- 
nity to hear Wang Xilin’s Symphony no. 4 at Liang's house. The 
symphony, named Sorrows of the Century, had been banned 
three years before. Liang also played tapes of the composer 



singing Chinese folk songs as well as his improvised speeches. 
While listening to the tapes, I felt a strong urge to meet this leg- 

With the help of Liang, I finally met Wang Xilin at the end 
of January. Wang, 6y, was quite capricious. During the six 
interviews I had with him, Wang was shedding tears at one 
moment and then playing old tunes on his violin the next. He 
said those old tunes helped stimulate his fading memories. 

wang xilin: I remember seeing an old Soviet movie. I’ve forgotten its 
name. It was made during the temporary political thaw following 
Joseph Stalin's death. In the movie, a kid questioned his father who 
had served as a prison guard under Stalin. The kid asked: When you 
worked inside the gulag, did you ever shoot any prisoner in the back? 
The father refused to answer but the kid kept pressing for answers. 
Eventually, the father couldn't stand the guilt and committed suicide 
by jumping out the window of his apartment building. This scene has 
stayed in my memory for many years. It reminds me of what happened 
in China under Chairman Mao. Nowadays, when I look at people 
walking on the street, I keep thinking to myself: Have they ever perse- 
cuted or tortured others? Have they ever betrayed their comrades and 
trampled on the bodies of others to advance their own political career? 
How many parents are being haunted by their blood-tainted hands? 

liao yiwu : How do you assess your own past? Can we start from the 

wang: I joined the Communist army in 1949, when 1 was only twelve 
years old. I was a boy soldier and grew up in the big revolutionary fam- 
ily of the army. Those adult soldiers literally raised me. Since I was so 
young, the commander assigned me to a group of army musicians and 
performers, who taught me how to play all sorts of traditional musical 
instruments. Our job was to entertain the troops stationed in the north- 
west. I picked up things fast and soon made quite a reputation for 

The Composer 95 

myself. As I got older, the Party saw the potential in me and sent me to 
a music school run by the Central Military Commission. In 1957, I was 
admitted to the Shanghai Music Academy. 

liao: It was quite a smooth ride, wasn’t it? 

wang: I was really lucky. My civilian life started after I entered college. 
However, I still wore my military uniform and was quite active in the 
newly launched anti-Rightist campaign. Soon, I was elected chairman 
of the student union and head of the Communist Youth League. I 
despised those students whose sole focus was to study music, espe- 
cially Western music. As a devout revolutionary, I treated the college as 
a place for political campaigns and physical labor. I frequently cut 
classes and volunteered myself at local communes nearby working in 
rice paddies or digging canals. During the Great Leap Forward in 1958, 
we built a furnace in the middle of the college playground and tried to 
produce iron to support the country’s industrialization campaign. It 
was so crazy. 

In the first three years, I didnt learn much about music. It wasn’t 
until i960 that things started to change. The Great Leap Forward 
turned out to be a big disaster. The Party was forced to adjust its policy, 
and Mao's radical ideas temporarily took a backseat. Normalcy 
returned to school. 

liao: Since you missed so many classes, what did you do? 

wang: It was like waking up from a weird dream. I looked around and 
saw some of my schoolmates, whom I used to call the bourgeois musi- 
cians," were getting attention from the Party. Musicians, such as 
pianist Yin Chengzhong, became celebrities and patriots after they had 
won awards at international competitions. My classmates began to 
look down on me, treating me like a country bumpkin who seemed to 
major in physical labor. 

It was also at that time that my family got hit with political prob- 
lems. My physician brother had lost his sanity and starved to death in 
the famine. My sister, a former government official in the northwestern 
city of Lanzhou, was labeled a Rightist. She appealed her verdict, but 
the provincial government downgraded her even further, making her a 


counterrevolutionary. It was very upsetting. 1 decided to shun politics 
and focus on learning some practical skills. I began to take a strong 
interest in composing. In my final year, I met a professor who had just 
returned from the Soviet Union. Under his tutelage, 1 made rapid 
progress in Western music composition and soon became the top stu- 
dent in my class. 

LIAO: I heard that you composed a well-known quartet while you were in 

wang: The professor who coached me was a pianist, and composition 
was not his specialty. So I learned everything from books. I read over 
thirty different types of books related to quartets, and took careful 
notes. In the summer of 1961, I literally moved into a music studio, 
sweated for over forty days, and finally completed a twenty-five-minute 
string quartet with three movements. I presented my work to Ding 
Shande, the dean of the academy. His daughter liked it tremendously. 
She was the head of a female string quartet group. Her group rehearsed 
and recorded the piece, which became quite popular. 

liao: Your hard work certainly paid off. 

WANG: I was surprised by the achievement I accomplished on my own. 
For the first time, I realized that I had found my calling. After gradua- 
tion, I was assigned to the China Central Radio Orchestra, which spe- 
cialized in folk music. I was quite upset because my passion was to 
compose symphonies. So I told the school authority that I wasn't qual- 
ified for the job because 1 didn't know much about Chinese folk music. 
At first, they ignored me. I simply stayed at the college guesthouse and 
bugged the Party secretary every day. Eventually, they couldn’t stand it 
and reassigned me to the symphony orchestra. 

liao: How did you get away with bucking authority like that? 

wang: I was young and quite fearless. That was the only time 1 lucked 
out. After 1 began working at the symphony orchestra, I immediately 
took on the task of composing my first symphonic piece. First, I 
requested a piano. Leaders at the orchestra thought I was overly ambi- 

The Composer 97 

tious and arrogant. They turned down my request. One day, I found 
an old piano in the corner of a warehouse. On the spur of the moment, 
I called some of my friends and asked them to help move the piano 
to my office. As we were carrying that big sucker over, I got stopped by 
an administrator who ordered me to return the piano to the warehouse. 
1 did, but he reported me to the director. I got a terrible reprimand. 
The director accused me of being too individualistic. He sent me 
over to a village and ordered me to work in the field for one month as 

In the fall of 1962, Chairman Mao initiated another political move- 
ment — the Socialist Education Campaign. Mao referred to the cam- 
paign as inviting Communist leaders to come downstairs from the 
bureaucratic tower and “take baths” to cleanse themselves. The cam- 
paign was first kicked off as a pilot project in agencies directly under 
the control of the central government. In the fall of 1963, the symphony 
orchestra held a meeting, welcoming staff to pour “hot water” and help 
“bathe” our leaders. 

liao: Didn’t Mao do the same in 1957, when he encouraged intellectuals 
to criticize the Party? He called his tactics “baiting snakes out of their 
caves. When people took his bait, he smacked them right on the head. 

wang: I know. Most employees became cautious and numb to the cam- 
paign. At the kickoff meeting, many women nonchalantly knitted 
sweaters while guys simply lowered their heads, saying nothing. I was 
this hot-blooded idiot who felt compelled to stand up and offer leaders 
at the symphony orchestra a “hot bath.” 

First, I questioned the Party’s policy in music. The Party called on 
composers to create more revolutionary music, incorporate more popu- 
lar Chinese folk and ethnic music into our work, and make symphonies 
easily adaptable for radio broadcasts. I said the current policy was 
restrictive, shortsighted, and detrimental to the development of Chi- 
nese symphonic music. 

Second, I criticized the unfair treatment of musicians who had 
returned from overseas. I used the example of Lin Kechang, a well- 
known violinist and conductor. He grew up in Indonesia and had grad- 
uated from a music university in Paris. When Mr. Lin joined our 
orchestra, he was put under a deputy director who knew nothing about 


music. Mr. Lin felt miserable. I said: It’s ridiculous to put a political 
appointee in charge of the works of musicians. 

I went on and on for two hours. Initially, I was quite diplomatic and 
cautious with my words. Then, half an hour into my speech, I got car- 
ried away. My mind totally lost control and my criticism became more 
blunt. While I was talking, I saw the deputy director and several other 
officials were busily taking notes. 

liao: 1 bet those guys were busy collecting material against you. 

wang: Yes, they were. 

liao: What was the Party’s reaction to your speech? 

wang: Several days passed and nothing happened. Then, a rumor 
started to circulate, saying that I was the ringleader of a counterrevolu- 
tionary clique within the orchestra. I tried to find out more from my co- 
workers, but people shunned me like a disease. Zhang Haibo, the first 
flutist at the orchestra, was the only friend who still talked with me. He 
and I secretly met at a small restaurant one night, and I had the oppor- 
tunity to vent my frustrations and fear about the rumors. He was very 
sympathetic and told me to be cautious. 

In the next four weeks, I was like an eagle locked up in a cage cov- 
ered with black cloth, feeling trapped, tortured, and clueless. Finally, 
in the fifth week, the Party leaders felt they had tortured me long 
enough with their silence. They sent me a note, saying that the director 
wanted to see me. When I walked into his office, the director stared at 
me from behind his desk. That steely look made me nervous. He 
uttered a sigh, like a father to his wayward son. Well, the director had 
joined the Communists in the 1940s. He was a seasoned revolutionary. 
From the look of things, I could tell that he probably wanted to save me. 

The director opened his mouth, uttered another sigh, and said 
softly: Comrade Xilin, do you know that your speech was a serious 
political mistake? Why didn’t you discuss it with me before the meet- 
ing? As your supervisor, I could have told you what to say and what not 
to say. Right now, it’s too late. The nature ol your mistakes has 
changed. Your speech has been considered a direct attack against our 

The Composer 99 

His words scared me. I cried. The director continued, You strayed 
away from the revolutionary path and pursued a bourgeois goal of com- 
posing music to pursue fame. You are as arrogant as a rooster, oblivious 
of the rules and the criticisms of the masses. You removed a piano from 
the warehouse without permission and created a bad precedent. After 
receiving reeducation through labor, you still stick to your old ways. You 
are hopeless. 

Several times I felt the need to defend myself, but the director 
waved his hand to stop me. Then he offered me an olive branch: 
Despite the fact that you have gone in the opposite direction and seri- 
ously hurt the revolutionary feelings of the masses, the Party will open 
its arms to embrace you, but on one condition — you have to openly 
admit your mistakes. Comrade Xilin, the Party raised you in the army 
and sent you to school to study music. Do you know that it takes three 
thousand peasants working for five years in order to feed and support a 
student in college? How could you do this to the Party and to the great 
masses who have fed you? 

I was in a state of total shock. The director talked to me for over 
one hour. In the end, he told me to dig deeper into the root cause of my 
mistakes and beg forgiveness from the masses and the Party. 

I was touched by his willingness to save me. I had witnessed the 
punishment the Party had dished out to those Rightists back in 1957. I 
didn t want that. So I promised, with tears flowing and nose running at 
the same time, that I would do some serious inner examination. 

During the next several days, I wrote day and night nonstop. It was 
ten times more intense than composing my music. I condemned 
myself multiple times. 1 piled up a list of the most vicious words to 
curse myself. I called myself a stinky bad egg. I used all the political 
jargon available, such as "individualistic, bourgeoisie, and Right-wing 
opportunist” to label my mistakes. I truly believed that I deserved hun- 
dreds of slaps on my face and hundreds of buckets of shit over my 
head. Like many intellectuals in that era, I sucked up to the Party, hop- 
ing that 1 would be exonerated. When I finished, the report was almost 
as thick as a small book. 

Liao: My father used to do the same thing. During the Cultural Revolu- 
tion, he compiled more than a hundred things which he claimed were 
his crimes. My father grew up in a landlord’s family. When he was two 



years old, one tenant used to carry him on his back and take him to a 
market. My father even listed that as his “willful exploitation of the 
working class.” 

wang: We were all baring our hearts to the Party. After I submitted it to 
the director, he asked the Communist Youth League to organize a staff 
meeting inside a big performance studio. The sound quality there 
was excellent. In front of over a hundred people, I read aloud my self- 
criticism. My talk lasted two and a half hours. Several times, I had to 
stop to wipe my tears. In the end, I felt dizzy and it was like my throat 
was on fire. Everybody was quiet. I thought they were really touched by 
the thoroughness and sincerity of my speech. Then — 

liao: There was a power outage? 

wang: Don't 1 wish it! Someone stood up. It was Niu Jun, the secretary 
for the Communist Youth League. He played Chinese bamboo flute in 
the orchestra. He spoke with his piercing tone: That is so fake. Let's 
not be deceived by WangXilin’s confession. Let's fight back against the 
attacks by Wang and his counterrevolutionary clique. 

After Niu Jun sat down, a municipal government representative 
stood up and set the tone: Comrade Niu is absolutely right. Wang 
Xilin’s father was a county sheriff under the Nationalist government. 
His sister is a convicted Rightist and counterrevolutionary. He cov- 
ered it up and snuck into our revolutionary ranks. Now, after years of 
hibernating, he finally jumped out to attack our Party. Comrades, 
remember what Chairman Mao teaches us: “Never forget class strug- 
gle.” This is a class struggle between the proletariat and the bour- 
geoisie. We need to be tough. Meanwhile, I also urge everyone sitting 
here today to examine his or her behavior and to see which camp they 
want to be in. 

I felt like dying. Before I joined the army, the Party knew everything 
about my family. They had cleared me of any connections with my par- 
ents. I just couldn't handle the new accusations. 1 collapsed onto my 
seat like a sand castle at high tide. 

liao: I thought the director wanted to save you and give you a second 

The Composer 


wang: That was what I thought too. Later on, I realized that it was 
orchestrated by the local municipal government because they wanted 
to kill the chicken to intimidate the monkeys. They wanted to make 
sure that no one in the orchestra dared to challenge the Party again. I 
became the unfortunate sacrificial chicken. 

liao: Did the director talk with you again? 

wang: Yes. In the period between the fall of 1963 and the spring of 1964, 
I was ordered to do self-criticism at every public meeting and almost 
every staff member had the chance to denounce me. Soon, they ran 
out of material. One day, the director called me again to his office, with 
the same fatherly look, the same gesture, and the same sigh. After I had 
experienced months of nightmarish public condemnation and isola- 
tion, the directors fatherly look was quite comforting. I began to cry 
like a child who has been beaten up by bigger kids on the block. 

He said: Comrade Xilin, I hope you have learned something from 
the past month. Don t blame other comrades for their tough attitude 
toward you. You should he thankful. The Party has confidence in you. 
Our Party has successfully reformed the last emperor of the Qing 
dynasty and many former senior Nationalist officials. If those big shots 
can change, so can you. 

My tears just kept flowing. I thanked him profusely. Then he said: 
We know that you constantly hang out with some members of this 
orchestra and vent your complaints against the Party. We know every- 
thing. We want you to describe in detail every conversation or meeting 
you have had with other people. Honesty will get you leniency. 

Sensing the hesitancy in my eyes, the director patted me on the 
shoulder and said: The Party needs to help other comrades who have 
committed similar mistakes. Dont feel guilty. This is a serious class 
struggle and you are doing them a favor by bringing them back to 
the Party. After this campaign is over, all of you will be treated as good 

I was a strong believer in the Party’s policy — Cooperation leads 
to leniency. So, I made a list of one hundred incidents where my co- 
workers and I had made inappropriate remarks about the Party and 
leaders of the orchestra. In the process, I betrayed my friends, such as 
the first flutist Zhang Haibo and trumpeter Chen Yingnan. 



liao: Under the circumstances, I guess you didn’t have too much of a 

wang: It was a total betrayal. I had too much faith in the Party. After I 
submitted my list, which I titled “My Second Confession About the 
Counterrevolutionary Clique Within Our Symphony Orchestra,” the 
director asked me to read it aloud at an all-staff meeting. 

liao: You called your friends members of a counterrevolutionary clique? 

wang: Yes. The director implied that associating my mistakes with a 
more serious criminal label would make me sound more sincere. Any- 
how, on the list I included my friends and a lot of other people. I didn’t 
even dare to raise my head. I simply read the list mechanically. The 
meeting became very tense. Initially, people held their breath, waiting 
to hear who would be the next to be implicated. It was like I had one 
hundred grenades hanging around my mouth. Each time I uttered an 
item, I could hear an explosion in the audience. Soon the volume of 
their responses got louder and louder. One woman suffered a nervous 
breakdown right there. Let me give you an example of what I put in the 
list: On the morning of September 6, I bumped into so-and-so. I heard 
him cursing the Party secretary for not allocating him a new apartment. 
Then, on the evening of January 19, so-and-so told me over lunch that 
he thought the deputy director was a jerk. 

1 finally finished the reading in three hours. As I was uttering a sigh 
of relief, the whole studio was filled with anger. Each time I mentioned 
a new name, that person would jump up and try to interrupt me, call- 
ing me a liar. They called me all sorts of names — “a vicious Rightist, a 
hypocrite who deserved to be cut into pieces.” People also started to 
bite one another with vicious accusations. In the end, my counterrevo- 
lutionary clique became bigger and bigger. More than thirty people 
were implicated. If it hadn’t been for the security guards, there would 
have been fistfights. I would have been trampled to death. 

My confessional list moved the whole campaign to a new stage. In 
order to clear their names, people started to expose the “crimes" of oth- 
ers. For a while, people were spying on one another, trying to collect 
damaging material to destroy one another. 

The emotional ups and downs of the campaign took a heavy toll on 

The Composer 


my mental health. I started to lose control of myself at several public 
meetings. The daytime denunciation meetings extended into my 
dreams. I would scream in my sleep. When I was awake, I would draw 
the curtain and became afraid of sunlight. I was in constant fear of get- 
ting arrested. Each morning, when the loudspeaker in the courtyard 
started blasting the famous revolutionary song, Chairman Mao Is Our 
Savior, I would jump out of bed, shaking with fear. This paranoia has 
haunted me for twenty-some years. Even today, when I see a big por- 
trait of Chairman Mao, I literally have goose bumps. 

liao: Did you seek treatment? 

wang. Initially, they said I was afraid of light because I had harbored too 
much darkness in my heart, and that I was paranoid about getting 
arrested because I hadnt come clean about all my crimes. Finally, as 
my illness worsened, they realized it was for real. So they sent me to a 
mental hospital. The mental illness seemed to run in my family. When 
my sister was charged with being a Rightist, she had similar symptoms. 
In my case, I was doing better after getting treatment. At the same 
time, the number ol public meetings was reduced because people were 
tired of hearing the same crap over and over again. Soon, they seemed 
to have forgotten about me. I had more time to myself. So I became 
restless and began to write music again. I finished a symphony, which I 
named The Yunnan Musical Poetry. 

liao: I ve heard it before. It was a great piece. 

wang: After over twenty years, the piece was finally recognized. I 
recently won the first prize at a national music contest. It has been 
played in thirty cities around the world. 

liao: It is amazing you could compose that masterpiece under those dif- 
ficult circumstances. 

wang: If it hadn't been for my music, you would have seen me in a men- 
tal asylum today. 

liao: Let’s continue with your story. What happened afterward? 


wang: In April of 1964, the Communist Youth League officially expelled 
me from the organization. The next day, the director called me to his 
office. Once again, he said with that fatherly tone: Comrade Xilin, you 
did a good job admitting your mistakes and exposing the mistakes of 
others. Considering your positive and cooperative attitude, we have 
decided to assign you to work for a music and dance troupe in rural 
Shanxi Province. This will give you the opportunity to thoroughly 
reform yourself. 

liao: How could you still trust that guy? 

WANG: Don’t forget that I started receiving Communist education at the 
age of twelve. I was very brainwashed. I bowed and expressed my grat- 
itude to him. You know what? Some of the friends that 1 had betrayed 
got worse treatment. Many members of my so-called counterrevolu- 
tionary clique were assigned to the desert regions of Gansu Province. 
So far, I haven’t had the guts to contact any of them. 

liao: Did you take the assignment? 

wang: Of course. Amazingly, I didn't feel depressed at all about my 
change of fate. I packed my belongings and left for Shanxi the next day. 
The troupe I worked for was on tour all the time. They traveled from 
village to village. Each time we arrived at a place, I would cook, prepare 
hot water for the actors, load and unload trucks, set up the stage and 
play an extra if needed. I believed that doing menial jobs would change 
my stinky bourgeois outlook on life. 

Several months later, the local leaders realized that I could com- 
pose. They ordered me to write lyrics for a choral piece. I did. There 
were four chapters: “Praising the Stalwart Commune Members," "The 
Leaders of the Local Party Are Excellent,” “The New Look of Our Vil- 
lage,” and “Three Communist Flags Wave in the Wind.” Then I was in 
charge of conducting a chorus of twenty people and an orchestra of 
thirty musicians. At the opening, many local leaders showed up. They 
loved my work. The head of the local propaganda department praised 
me in front of the audience by saying: Wang Xilin has gotten rid of the 
burdens of his past and he will have a bright future. 

For a while, I thought I was hnally getting a new lease on life. Then 

The Composer 105 

the political climate changed fast. In 1966, the Cultural Revolution 
started. The local Red Guards checked my personal files and uncov- 
ered my past problems. Within days, I was brought back to the public 
denunciation meetings. All the good work I had done was considered 
new crimes which aimed to deceive people. Remember the propa- 
ganda chief who praised me at the concert? He was accused of being a 
capitalist admirer and was locked up in a cowshed. Since he liked the 
lyrics I wrote for the chorus, the Red Guards condemned my work as 
blades of poisonous grass. 

I was the lone enemy in the performance troupe. T hey paraded me 
around, with a dunce cap on my head and a black cardboard sign 
around my neck. I had some new criminal labels: “An escaped Rightist, 
a hidden counterrevolutionary, a class enemy who covered up his fam- 
ily history ... All the self-criticisms I had written before amounted to 
nothing. I started all over again. The political instructor, who was illit- 
erate, monitored me every day. To regain their trust, I used the same 
trick. It was like writing a symphony: 1 put myself as the C major, the 
main theme. I condemned and slandered myself mercilessly. Then, I 
divided up people around me in different minor themes or variations. 

liao: Did it work? 

wang: Through self-criticism, I made myself an odious enemy of the 
people. Big-character posters were pasted all over the walls of the 
county office building. Most of them were directed at me. I was reas- 
signed to take care of the boilers. 

In 1968, at the peak of the Cultural Revolution, local factory work- 
ers took over the county government to clean out “a capitalist citadel." 
They rounded up all of the disgraced county officials, former landlords, 
and me, and threw us in a warehouse, which used to be a Japanese 
army concentration camp. We slept on the floor. Our windows were 
nailed shut. Our captors practiced what they called “using physical tor- 
ture to touch the souls.” Beatings were quite frequent. In my group, a 
guy named Cao Yuzhu had been a lighting engineer for the perfor- 
mance troupe. One time, he had said jokingly to his intern that Vice 
Chairman Lin Biao looked too sick to lead the country. The intern 
reported him to authorities. Cao was arrested on charges of slandering 
the successor to our Great Leader. When the Red Guards paraded Cao 


on the street, they hung all sorts of lightbulbs around his neck to make 
fun of his work. 

During the day, we were forced to work in the fields. Whenever 
there was a public criticism meeting, we immediately dropped our 
work and showed up on the stage in our usual jet-plane positions. 

Oftentimes, all the bad guys were strung together and we walked 
from county to county. Most of the meetings took place in the village 
square or inside big warehouses. Sometimes, we had to attend smaller 
meetings at someone’s home. That was the most painful. After my 
usual confession of how I was afraid of light, people would kick us or 
slap us since we were in close proximity. Some sadistic folks would 
order me to kneel on wooden boards filled with nails. Kids would pull 
my hair or ears. 

One night, it was almost n p.m. I heard a knock on the door. I 
got out of bed and opened the door. Before I knew what was happen- 
ing, someone attacked me, blindfolded me, tied my hands behind my 
back with ropes, gagged me with a piece of dirty rag, and dragged 
me away like a hostage. I could sense that I was led outside into the 
field. Then they pushed me down into a big hole on the ground, with 
lots of loose dirt under my feet. I thought I was going to be buried 
alive. So I moaned and groaned in despair. A few minutes later, I could 
feel warm water pouring down on my head. Someone peed on me 
from above. Then they pulled me out of the hole and took me to a 
warehouse. Two young guys pushed me against the wall, took the 
rag out of my mouth, grabbed my head, and banged my face against 
the wall. My nose was broken like a ping-pong ball. Then 1 heard a 
familiar voice behind me: Did you steal the little box from the archives 

I could tell the voice belonged to Zhao Baoqin, a member of the , 
performance troupe. Realizing that they were only looking for a stolen 
box, I became somewhat relaxed. I told them no. They took off my 
pants and whipped me a dozen times until I was bleeding. It hurt so 
much. After two hours of beatings, they still couldn't get anything out 
of me. So they let me go. The next morning, I found out that two other 
disgraced officials had similar interrogations the night before. 

liao: Did you ever think of escape? 

The Composer 


wang. Many times. For several years, I followed the performance 
troupe. All the actors would sit on the horse-drawn cart. A couple of 
counterrevolutionaries like me would walk behind the cart, carrying 
^ u 88 a g e ar, d props. We traveled all over the region, regardless of rain or 
snow. It was very hard. Eventually, there were rumors saying that all the 
counterrevolutionaries would be sent to jail. So I discussed this with 
two other bad guys and we planned our escape. I secretly bought a 
pair of rainproof shoes and a water bottle. As we were ready to imple- 
ment our plan, my mother showed up. She was in her seventies. As a 
little girl, she followed the ancient tradition and bound her feet. 

My mother carried a small sack of flour, a big porcelain bowl, and 
some clothes. She stayed at my dorm and waited for me to come back. 
But an official went to my dorm and told her: Your son is a counterrev- 
olutionary. He is under investigation; you are not allowed to stay with 
him. My mother was so confused: My son joined the Communist army 
at the age oi twelve. How could he rebel against the Communist Party? 

I was then released temporarily so I could find a hotel for her. My 
poor mother didnt want to spend money on a hotel. She repacked her 
stuff and left the next day. 

In the mid-1970s, after I regained freedom, I used to go visit my 
mother once a year in the city of Lanzhou. She helped raise my sister s 
two children. I would send her fifteen yuan [US$2] a month. 

Upon her release from the labor camp, my sister was transferred to 
a rural village outside Lanzhou. She continued to suffer humiliation at 
public meetings. A couple of times, she ran back to my mother’s house 
in the city to visit her children. But the street committee found out and 
they sent her back. 

My mother died on January 13, 1978. Before her death, she suffered 
from bronchitis and heart problems. We couldn’t afford to put her in 
the hospital. But a friend of mine, who was also a musician, had mar- 
ried a high-ranking army officer. With her help, the hospital admitted 
my mother. Three days later, my mother, who used to live frugally in 
slums, became really uncomfortable and kept saying: Take me home. 
Its too expensive here. Before I had the chance to move her, she died. 

I hired a horse-drawn cart, sent her body to a crematorium, and brought 
her ashes home. She was eighty-two years old. Her hands were like 
dried tree bark, distorted from years of hard work. 

liao: What happened to your sister? 

wang: She is now in her seventies and looks older than my mother. She 
is still quite insane, talking to herself all the time. It's horrible. 

liao: In China, musicians are low-class performers for hire. Few dare to 
challenge authorities. Many musicians, writers, and artists have 
become favorites for being the Party’s mouthpieces. For example, poet 
Fie Jingzhi became the minister of culture for writing revolutionary 
poems filled with lavish praise for new China. Singer Hu Songhua 
became famous and enjoyed the “People’s Artist” title for thirty-some 
years for singing one song, “The Song of Praises.” Master Wang, you 
had superior skills and possess all the qualities to be a "Red” artist like 
He Jingzhi and Hu Songhua. Yet you ended up getting purged not only 
in the Mao era, but also under Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. I guess 
it has a lot to do with your honesty. Maybe you should learn to be a lit- 
tle shrewd? 

wang: I have never stopped trying to suck up to the government. But my 
voice is too loud and my mouth is too big. As I said earlier, my trouble 
began after the two-hour speech in 1962. For fourteen years, I was 
detained, interrogated, beaten, humiliated, trampled, and abandoned. 
Even so, 1 have always tried to use my music to please those in power. 
During the Cultural Revolution, I composed many revolutionary lyrics 
while working in the boiler room. Those lyrics included “The Red Sun 
in My Heart,” “Revolutionary Rebels Are Not Afraid of Violence,” and 
“Walking on the Wide Path of the Cultural Revolution." No matter how 
hard I tried, the Party never gave a damn. You know, for many years, we 
Chinese were forced to accept the notion that our beloved Party was 
more endearing to us than our parents. From my experience, I think 
the Party is worse than an ugly ruthless stepmother. 

liao: I heard your Symphony no. 4 a couple of weeks ago. The sym- 
phony combines some local mourning tunes in Anhui Province; I mean 
the suona music is so haunting. Then there were the angry dissonant 
sounds of drums and bass . . . Your music is so autobiographical, harsh 
and dark. 

The Composer 

wang: Damn right. My music is devoid of tenderness or love. It's like a 
big dark lake, which contains all the mud, tears, blood, sighs, and 
screams from its surrounding rivers. Thats why it’s heavy, deep and 
dark. Some sissy artists used to say that love is everything. That’s 
total bullshit. When your right to live is being threatened, where do 
you get love? On June 4, 1989, when soldiers opened fire at students 
and residents, one thousand shouts of love couldnt even stop a single 

liao: Aren t you a bit too harsh on humanity? 

wang: In those turbulent times, I craved love and humanity. One time 
at a public meeting, I stood on the stage in a jet-plane position for four 
hours. My body hurt and my mouth was dry. After the meeting, an old 
lady came over and handed me a bowl of water. The bowl was not very 
clean and the water tasted a little weird. But she was so brave to care 
for a class enemy like me . . . Many years later, 1 still think of that bowl 
°f wa t er - Unfortunately, I didn t get too many of those warm and fuzzy 
things in life. 

liao: You look like a tough guy, but you are really quite sentimental and 
vulnerable inside. 

WANG: From my appearance, people think I’m very tough. I’m tall and 
have a loud voice. But inside here, I m constantly begging for mercy 
from my captors. Time after time, they ignored my begging. In the past, 

I have requested the government many times to reverse its verdict 
against me. My requests have gone unanswered for many years. 

But, music has sustained me. For many years, authorities in China 
despised twentieth-century Western music: Igor Stravinsky’s works 
were considered too decadent, Bichard Strauss was reactionary, and 
Dmitri Shostakovich a monster! We were at least fifty years behind the 
West in musical development. It wasn’t until the 1980s that China 
opened its door to the West. We Chinese finally realized that there was 
so much that we had missed. 

Since the late 1970s, I’ve been trying to catch up. I have produced 
over thirty different types of works. I have written Symphony no. 3 and 
no. 4. I’m writing no. 5 now. 



liao: 1 have read several news stories about the success of your music 
abroad. Your symphonies have been played in over twenty countries. 
People here seem to be indifferent to your works. 1 can t believe you get 
paid ten yuan [US$1.30] per hour for teaching a class. An orchestra 
here fired you because playing your symphonies didn’t bring them a 

wang: We are going from a dogmatic Communist society to a commer- 
cially driven one. Everyone is busy making money. They don’t hear the 
sufferings and pains of my generation. That indifference doesn’t change 
me or my music. I compose tor a different reason. I'm composing a series 
of elegies for the whole nation, for the millions of victims who died 
uncallcd-for deaths or suffered under Maoism. If Shostakovich’s music 
was testimony to the horrors of the Stalin era, my music will be . . . 
I don’t want to finish the sentence here. I guess my music will come in 
handy on Judgment Day because it is eternal. 


Feng Zhongci, 75, was my uncle Liao Enze's neighbor and 
friend. He lives in an apartment building near Chengdu's West 
Gate Train Station. Feng and his wife have two children, both 
of whom are married. In the 1950s, Feng was a promising leader 
of the Communist Youth League at his university. But during 
the anti-Rightist campaign, he was labeled a Rightist and lived 
many years in the desert region of Xinjiang LJyghur Autono- 
mous Region. 

I visited him on a recent August afternoon. His room was 
tiny and hot. He acted like an old-fashioned scholar, formal and 
overly polite. There was no air-conditioning in his apartment. 
During our conversation, both of us were sweating profusely, as 
if we were locked inside a dim sum steamer. Several times, I 
told him to take off his shirt, but he politely refused, saying it 
was improper to entertain a guest with a T-shirt on. 

liao yiwu : I want to chat with you about the anti-Rightist campaign. I 
want to know how you became a Rightist. 

feng zhongci : I don’t have much to talk about. 

liao: Uncle Feng, I’ve come a long way. You can’t let me leave here 
empty-handed. You can at least talk about the political climate in that 
era, can t you? I didn t realize that over 500,000 innocent people were 
persecuted during that period. Most of them were intellectuals. Some 
got labeled Rightists simply because they had written a letter to a liter- 
ary magazine or because they had expressed their doubts about the 
Communist Party in their personal diaries. That’s pretty hard to believe. 

feng: What happened in the 1950s might seem strange and abnormal 
today. But in that era it was very common. 


1 1 2 

LIAO: Were you one of those who became Rightist because you had spo- 
ken out against the Party? 

feng: Not really. I came from a proletariat family. I was politically active 
and supported the Party wholeheartedly. At the beginning of the anti- 
Rightist campaign, I was ready to stand up and fend off any attacks 
against the Party. 

liao: You aren’t kidding me, are you? 

feng: No. 1 was head of the Communist Youth League at my university. 

1 joined the Party in my sophomore year. Before my graduation in 1957, 
I was the first one to write an open letter to the Party and pledged to 
answer Chairman Mao’s call and take assignment in the remote 
poverty-stricken areas. However, the Party secretary had a private con- 
versation with me, saying that they needed politically reliable gradu- 
ates like me to help with the anti-Rightist Campaign. They wanted me 
to stay on after graduation and take over the school newspaper. He 
said, We need to seize this important forum from the hands of the 

liao: If you were so pro-Party, how did you end up being a Rightist your- 

feng: I became a Rightist because of my personal life. 

liao: Lifestyle problems? 

feng: Please don’t use that word to judge me. The word "lifestyle’’ has 
different interpretations at different times. In those years, you could be 
executed for having lifestyle problems. For example, if a guy had pre- 
marital sex with a female classmate, it could be a serious crime. 

liao: If your Rightist label was not lifestyle-related, what was it? 

feng: I got it because my wife’s family fell into the category of “reac- 
tionary bureaucrat and landlord.” Her uncle had served in the Nation- 
alist government as a chief of the drug enforcement agency. He was 


The Rightist 

executed not long after the Communist liberation in 1949. Her father, a 
big landlord, had made a young woman his concubine. So because of 
her family, my wife, Wenxin, shouldered a huge political burden at col- 
lege. She tried to concentrate on her studies and kept everything to 
herself. She was quite antisocial. I was just the opposite, very gregari- 
ous. I had many friends. When I was with a group, I felt like a fish in 
water. But somehow 1 found myself attracted to Wenxin’s aloofness. 
There was something mysterious and beautiful about her. 1 just 
couldn't get over her. 1 began to hang out with her in 1956. 

liao: I can imagine the challenges of dating someone who was incom- 
patible with you politically. My sister used to date a military officer dur- 
ing the Cultural Revolution. Before a military officer or a government 
official got married, the Party had to conduct thorough background 
checks on the future spouse’s family before granting approval. My sis- 
ters boyfriend had to break up with her because my grandfather used 
to be a landlord. In your case, how could her questionable family back- 
ground make you a Rightist? 

feng: This is how it all started. Initially, I tried to get together with 
Wenxin in the name of helping her with political studies. During our 
study sessions, I would engage her in conversations about art, music, 
and our families. Gradually, she began to open up to me. One time she 
told me that she was very close to her father’s concubine. I immedi- 
ately warned her to strengthen her political standing by separating her- 
self from the decadent concubine of a landlord. She didn't say 
anything. One day, she suggested that we take a stroll outside the cam- 
pus. After we were out on the street, she led me to a courtyard house 
inside a deep alleyway. She didn’t tell me who we were visiting. 

As we entered the shadowy courtyard, I saw a woman squatting by 
a well, hand-washing clothes. She had long black hair and long slender 
fingers. She had quite an elegant figure. When she smiled, her pale 
face exuded a kind of sadness. That woman was Wenxin s stepmother, 
the concubine. She poured tea for us. Wenxin then begged her step- 
mother to play the piano for us. She wiped the dust off a piano in a cor- 
ner of the living room and played a variation on “The Sky in the 
Communist Regions Is Brighter” — the revolutionary song that we had 
sung hundreds of times in large groups. She probably did that to ingra- 


tiate herself with me. She either knew I was a diehard Communist sup- 
porter. or she simply wanted to show that she was in tune with the 
times. Strangely enough, that uplifting revolutionary song totally 
changed character under her long elegant fingers. The tune became 
rottenly bourgeois, with so much tenderness, elegance, and sadness, as 
if it had been a woman’s whisper and sigh on a quiet starlit night. For a 
brief moment, I was mesmerized. 

After I walked out of that courtyard house, 1 began to question 
myself. As a Party member and the head of the Communist Youth 
League, how could I have succumbed to her decadent music so easily? 
Where did my political upbringing go? 

liao: Were you really that radical? 

feng: Yes. I was. But, on the other hand, I was a college student. Before 
1 95 7> the stuff they taught at colleges was not as radical and dogmatic. 
We had some access to Western books and were allowed to listen to 
Western music, which had some positive influence on me. Anyhow, as 
I was wrestling with my political beliefs, Wenxin grabbed my hand and 
said: She likes you. Otherwise, she wouldn’t play the piano for you. I 
said angrily: This was the first time that I had come into contact with a 
member of the decadent ruling class. Are you trying to corrupt me? So 
I turned around and walked away. Wenxin was still standing inside the 
alleyway, which seemed darker and frightful. To me, she was like some- 
one standing in the shadows of the past. She caught up with me and 
said: Let me tell you the story of my stepmother. Before she married 
my father, she had a lover. He was her music teacher. Her family 
strongly opposed the relationship because the teacher didn’t have any 
money. Eventually, she bowed to her family’s pressure and became my 
fathers concubine. After their marriage, my father realized that he 
couldn’t really change her mind about her music teacher. So he gave up 
on her. After the revolution in 1949, she and my father filed for divorce. 
Then she went to look for her lover, who had relocated to the central 
city of Xian. When she got there, she found out that her lover had 
already died of tuberculosis. All she saw was his tomb. The experience 
devastated her. Two months later, she returned to Chengdu and has 
lived alone since. Before my father passed away, he had forgiven her 
and gave her that courtyard house. She had never gotten over the death 


The Rightist 

of her lover and started to lose her sanity. She would cry and laugh for 
no reason. Since she and I were of similar age, I felt a lot of sympathy 
for her. I come occasionally to take care of her. 

After listening to Wenxin’s story, I was kind of touched. It was like 
a bourgeois movie produced during the pre-Communist days. So, I 
asked her: Why are you telling me this? She shrugged her shoulder: 
I try to bare my heart to the Party. You can report me if you want. I 
don’t care. 

1 felt so hurt by her mean remarks. I turned my head away to hide 
my tears. At that moment, I also experienced something that I had 
never felt before. I was in love with Wenxin. 

liao: Did the Party interfere in your love affair? 

FENG: Not at the beginning. Luckily, very few people knew about our 
relationship, and my meetings with Wenxin were not that frequent. 
Then, in 1957 > Chairman Mao introduced the campaign called “Let 
one hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought con- 
tend.” Many intellectuals responded with enthusiasm. Through lec- 
tures, published articles, and big-character posters people around the 
country began to voice their views and question the leading role of 
the Party. Initially, Chairman Mao welcomed the criticism. With his 
endorsement, local officials were quite tolerant. Meanwhile, the dis- 
senting voices from intellectuals got louder and the criticisms became 
more severe and radical. Some even suggested the end to the one-party 
rule and called for the establishment of a Western-style democratic 
system. I still remember the remarks of Ge Peiqi, a well-known scholar 
from the Beijing People’s University. In one of his articles, he said that 
China belonged to the six hundred million Chinese, including the 
counterrevolutionaries. China didn't belong to the Communist Party 
alone. It was wrong for the Party leadership to assume that “the Empire 
is mine and I am the Empire. The Communist Party shouldn’t be too 
arrogant, naively thinking that if the Party collapsed, the whole country 
would collapse. That was not the case. Those who opposed the Com- 
munist Party were not traitors . . . Ge just went on and on. Criticisms 
like Ges had far exceeded the government’s limit of tolerance. 

At my university, many students actively joined in the national cho- 
rus of criticism. Like I mentioned before, Wenxin was a quiet girl and 


had never been active in politics. But I encouraged her to speak her 
mind. Eventually, with my repeated encouragement, she summoned 
her courage and stood up at a departmental meeting. She said: The 
Communist Party has long advocated the idea of democracy and equal- 
ity. That meant students with a nonproletariat family background 
should be able to enjoy equal rights. During my four years at the uni- 
versity, I have endured all types of discrimination. I was denied the 
opportunity to join the Communist Youth League. 1 work really hard 
and have gotten top grades. But I have been accused of being a bour- 
geois scholar. Chairman Mao has said on many occasions that the Party 
should offer a way out for children of nonprogressive families, as long 
as they draw a clear line between themselves and their landlord or cap- 
italist parents . . . 

After Wenxin finished, I clapped my hands loudly, but only a few 
people joined in the applause. I could see displeasure on the face of 
many student leaders. I had always followed the Party line closely. At 
that meeting, 1 miscalculated. I naively thought that by speaking her 
mind, Wenxin could get other people to understand her better. She 
could get more sympathy from her classmates. Little did I know that I 
had gotten Wenxin into trouble. 

One month after Wenxin’s first public speech, the political climate 
turned dramatically. Chairman Mao came out and declared that the 
movement had brought out the most dangerous class enemies who had 
previously been in hiding. With those remarks, the anti-Rightist cam- 
paign followed. One after another, many intellectuals fell from grace. 
The purge soon spread to my university. Students were mobilized to 
expose and report on their classmates and teachers. The school author- 
ities compiled a list of those they considered to be potential Rightists 
and distributed it to all the departments. The Party secretary asked stu- 
dents and faculty to select the Rightists through voting. Wenxin 
became a top candidate for Rightist. 

liao: Wasn’t it ironic that people were actually asked to decide who 
should be persecuted by casting their votes? 

feng: Yes. In this way, the decision would reflect the will of the people. 
On the day when the vote was cast, the Party secretary of my university 
showed up and presided over our department meeting. Of course, 
there were lots of grievances against me. Some questioned my relation- 

The Rightist uy 

ship with Wenxin. Since I was on his priority list for promotion, the 
Party secretary defended me furiously with blatant lies. He said: Com- 
rade Feng contacted Wenxin frequently upon secret instructions from 
the Party. Many of you here might have thought that Wenxin is a quiet 
student. But she harbors deep hatred for our new China. That snake, 
in the form of a beautiful woman, has finally been exposed in broad 
daylight. We wouldnt have been able to accomplish this without the 
hard work of Comrade Feng. The Party is considering granting Com- 
rade Feng the honor of “Outstanding Leader of the Communist Youth 
League. I couldnt believe what I was hearing. Wenxin stood up, 
looked in my direction with extreme anger. Her face turned ashen and 
then she collapsed to the floor. Ignoring the stares from people in the 
room, I carried her in my arms and dashed to the school clinic. Even as 
I was doing that, the Party secretary continued with his lies: Comrade 
Feng is doing the right thing. Even though Wenxin is a member of the 
enemy, we need to help her out of our revolutionary humanity. 

liao: That was quite dramatic. 

feng: Well, before Wenxin regained consciousness, I left the clinic in a 
trance. Then leaders of the Communist Youth League came to talk 
with me. They wanted me to review the list of Rightists in my depart- 
ment and then sign off on it. With my signature, they were going to 
submit the list to the city government. I refused to sign the paper, 
which included Wenxin’s name. When the Party secretary and the 
president of my university heard about it, they came to my dorm and 
tried to talk me into signing it. I knew that my refusal could jeopardize 
my future. But I was quite stubborn and didn’t budge. 

The university president warned me: The Party has spent many 
years training and nurturing you. You should understand your boundary 
and don't trash your future. 1 retorted: The Party should be honest and 
transparent. Why would the Party secretary lie about my relationship 
with Wenxin? The president patted me on the back and said, Don’t you 
know that the Party secretary tried to protect you from the criticism? I 
didn’t agree: Wenxin should be treated as our ally. She has betrayed 
her family and is willing to join the revolution. But the president 
laughed at me: Don t be fooled by her act. If she is as progressive as you 
have suggested, why did she take you to visit her father’s concubine? 
She attempted to entice you into her world and corrupt your revolu- 


tionary spirit. We know everything you and she did. I was flabber- 
gasted. The Party secretary continued: You are the one who is insane at 
the moment. You would throw away your political future for the sake of 
that woman. 

I became incensed and started to argue with the president: I don’t 
agree with the charges against Wenxin. I swear to the Party that she is 
nowhere close to being a Rightist. The president banged on the desk 
and yelled at me: You’d better think before you open your mouth. Your 
judgment has been clouded by your emotions. For a young hot-blooded 
guy like you, it’s understandable. But human emotion has to succumb 
to reason and political thinking. Chairman Mao teaches us, there is no 
such thing in the world as pure love. You can’t love an enemy. I was so 
irrational and blurted out something that I had never said before: I love 
her. The Party secretary looked at me and softened his tone: OK. You 
have to make a choice between that woman and the Party. I said again, 
very firmly: I love her. 

Two weeks later, I was expelled from the Party and was labeled a 
Rightist as well as a bad element. 

liao: Were you officially dating Wenxin at that time? 

feng: No, we were just friends. She liked me but certainly not as a 
boyfriend. She was just grateful that I was willing to talk with her since 
none of her classmates wanted to have anything to do with her. Wenxin 
changed my political views. Before the Communists came, my family 
was so poor that I had to beg on the street. One time, I knocked on the 
door of a landlord, asking for food. The guy let his dog out to chase me 
away. As the dog was barking at me, I barked back. I ended up biting 
half of the dog’s ear off. That incident made me hate that landlord. 
After 1949, the Communists told me that it wasn’t that specific land- 
lord who was merciless. The whole ruling class was evil. Since then, I 
started to despise all people who belonged to the landlord or capitalist 
class. But talking with Wenxin helped me see things differently. I no 
longer believed in Mao’s “class struggle” theory. 

liao: So what happened to you? 

FENG: Have you read the American writer Edgar Snow’s book, Red 
China Today ? In the book, the author interviewed an American- 

The Rightist 119 

educated C hinese intellectual who had returned to China to join the 
revolution. That intellectual became a Rightist. This is how he 
described his experience: "Everybody in my bureau, from the office boy 
or scrubwoman up, can tell me how bourgeois I am, criticize my per- 
sonal habits, my family life, my intellectual arrogance, the way I spend 
my leisure, even my silences. 1 have to sit and take it . . . Some people 
prefer suicide rather than submit to it. It took me years to get used to it 
but now I believe it has been good to me. This is exactly what hap- 
pened to me and Wenxin. After graduation, I was denied a job. I stayed 
at home and had to attend public denunciation meetings. In the old 
days, I was the one who was in charge at those meetings and always 
criticized others. Then, as a Rightist, I was the target all the time. Like 
the guy in Snows book, I got used to it, especially after I had kids. 

liao: Did you ever regret your decision? 

feng: No. Many people felt sorry for me, for what they called "my sud- 
den irrational act. Rut I think it was a good thing. Between the Party 
and a woman, I picked the latter. People need to put their personal life 
first, don t you think, young man? We joined the Communist revolution 
so we could live a better life, have enough to eat, marry a beautiful 
woman, and raise a family. This basic concept was totally distorted in 
the Mao era. All we talked about were the abstract ideas such as the 
Party and the People. Private lives were considered something dis- 
graceful. \ou cant marry the Party or the People, can you? We used to 
hear phony stuff like "So-and-so has been nurtured by the Party and 
the People. What do the Party's breasts look like? 

I would really regret the rest of my life if I had signed the paper and 
supported the Party s decision to punish Wenxin and other Rightists. 
Things have changed today. We really should thank Deng Xiaoping for 
ending the era when humans lived like ghosts, devoid of any feelings or 

liao: How did you make Wenxin love you? 

feng. After I became a Rightist, I was somehow at peace with myself. I 
wrote her a love letter. One night, I snuck out and stopped by her step- 
mothers house. I pushed the letter in through a slit in the door and 
rushed back home. I sent five or six letters that way and never got any- 



thing back from her. I made lots of inquiries and found out that Wenxin 
had been exiled to a state farm in Aksu, in Xinjiang. So I went to look 
for her. I took a train, and then a long-distance bus. By the time I got 
there, 1 had literally no money in my pocket. I begged my way around. 
Then I was detained by the local police for migrating without a per- 
mit. They were going to send me to a detention center in the middle of 
the Taklimakan Desert. I told them that I was looking for Wenxin. It so 
happened that the detention center was not too far away, on the north- 
western side of her farm. Authorities contacted the farm, found 
Wenxin, and confirmed my story. The day they dropped me off at her 
farm, I saw her picking cotton in the field. Her face was so tanned and 
she looked healthy — reform through hard labor had done some good to 
her health. Anyhow, when I called her name, she hardly recognized me. 
It took her quite a while to realize that the guy with the disheveled look 
in front of her was her beloved Feng Zhongci. 

The rest is just history, nothing extraordinary. We were both Right- 
ists. In that sense, we were quite a match. Since I went all the way to 
court her, she couldn’t reject me, even though I wasn’t her ideal com- 
panion. After we asked permission to marry from the authorities at her 
farm, they were quite accommodating. They issued her a travel certifi- 
cate and granted her two weeks of vacation. So we came back to 
Chengdu and obtained our marriage certificate from the city. Then, 
after the wedding, we both applied for the cancellation of our city 
residential permit and moved to Xinjiang. A counterrevolutionary cou- 
ple was willing to relocate to China’s frontier to support the socialist 
revolution. Nobody had objections to that. Since Aksu was so far 
away from the political center, our lives were really unaffected by the 
ensuing political campaigns. In the late 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping 
reversed the Party’s earlier verdict against Rightists, we brought our 
two Xinjiang-born kids back to Chengdu and reunited with the rest of 
our families. This is pretty much my life. I have to say that right now, 
I’m pretty contented. 


When famine first struck Sichuan in i960, I was two years old. 
Since my mother couldn 't get enough milk or food to feed me, I 
was dying from sei’ere edema and my body puffed up like a loaf 
of bread. Thanks to an herbal doctor, I miraculously survived, 
but millions of other children and adults didn't. Experts believe 
that an estimated thirty million people starved to death in the 
1958—1961 famine. Zheng Dajun, a retired government official, 
headed a government work team at a rural region in Sichuan 
around that time. He witnessed the devastating impact of the 
famine, which he said was a shameful chapter in the history of 
the Chinese Communist Party. 

I met Zheng in June of 2002 at a resort in Huilonggou, 
Chongqing County. Zheng was seventy-two years old. He was 
short with broad shoulders and looked very distinguished. 
Before his retirement, Zheng had held senior positions in the 
Sichuan provincial government. 

LIAO YIWU: When I was growing up, we normally referred to the 
'958-1961 famine as “three years of natural disasters." The government 
attempted to cover up its mistakes by blaming the famine on drought 
and flood, even though many areas hit by the famine had mild weather 
conditions during that time. 

zheng dajun: Most people knew exactly what had happened, but 
nobody dared to challenge the official version. That part of the history 
has been treated as a “state secret.” In 1959, Marshal Peng Dehuai 
wrote to Chairman Mao and criticized his extreme policies which had 
led to the disasters. Marshal Peng was purged and persecuted to death 
during the Cultural Revolution. Things have changed now. From the 
information that has been made public we have learned that the 
famine was mostly manmade. 1 think the Communist Party owes an 



honest explanation and apology to the Chinese people, especially the 

liao: I don't think that’s going to happen soon. Could you tell me about 
your experience during those three years of hardship? 

zheng: I joined the Communist army to fight against the Nationalists in 
1948, at the age of eighteen. Two years later, after the new China was 
founded, I was demobilized and assigned to work in the rural areas. My 
job was to mobilize peasants to participate in the Land Reform move- 
ment. Since my family couldn’t afford to send me to school when I was 
a kid, 1 was illiterate. So I worked during the day and took literacy 
classes in the evenings. I made good progress in my education and as a 
result, I was promoted very fast. By the time I turned twenty-six in 
1958, 1 had become the deputy director of the County Agricultural Task 

In the 1950s, people were passionate about the new Communist 
government and would do anything the Party called on them to do. For 
example, Chairman Mao said sparrows ate the crops and needed to be 
eliminated. Soon, a nationwide campaign was launched and everyone 
turned out to chase and catch sparrows. After two years, sparrows 
nearly disappeared in China. Little did we know that killing sparrows 
would disrupt the delicate balance of nature. Sparrows ate crops, but 
they also ate bugs, which flourished and brought disasters to many 
areas after the sparrows had gone. But passion was running so high that 
nobody dared to question the practice in a scientific way. Similar things 
happened in the Great Leap Forward campaign. 

In the spring of 1958, the county chief dispatched me to inspect 
progress on the Great Leap Forward at the Second Production Division 
of Dongyang Commune. Let me give you some background because 
many young people don’t know much about that period. The late fifties 
were a critical period for the Party. The split between the Soviet Union 
and our country began to widen. The world’s two largest socialist coun- 
tries started turning hostile to each other. Increasingly, the Soviets 
threatened to withdraw financial aid. Chairman Mao and the Central 
Party Committee realized that China had to become zili gengsheng , or 
self-reliant and independent. We had to transform our country into an 
advanced industralized country within a short time. That was why 

The Retired Official 123 

Chairman Mao launched the Great Leap Forward campaign. The slo- 
gan at that time was "We are running toward an advanced Communist 

The region where I stayed was hilly country, with very fertile land 
and mild weather conditions. It was famous for rice, wheat, corn, 
beans, and sweet potatoes. However, after the Great Leap Forward 
started, people were in such haste to produce results that they began to 
discard traditional ways of farming. The commune leaders followed 
instructions from the Party and ordered peasants to use a new method 
called reasonable density,” which had been invented by a Soviet scien- 
tist. Based on that new method, furrows were plowed very deep. Rice 
or wheat seedlings were planted very densely. The Party claimed that 
the method could increase the grain output ten times. Newspapers 
carried big photos of densely planted rice, with headlines like “Peas- 
ants in Such-and-Such County Have Produced Miracles.” Many peas- 
ants knew that it was an impossible task, but nobody wanted to be 
labeled "backward and conservative.” They began to follow suit and 
experiment. Members of the Dongyang Commune planted and packed 
the seedlings as tightly as possible in one mu [0.164 acre] of farmland. 
Initially, those green seedlings looked terrific. Not long after our work 
team left, a friend from the region told us that many had died and the 
surviving ones didnt pollinate or set. The commune leaders got really 
worried because another inspection team sent by the provincial gov- 
ernment was coming. So they ordered peasants to pull twenty mu of 
healthy rice planted in the traditional way and move them over to a 
small plot right before the inspection team arrived. As expected, the 
inspectors left, fully impressed. Reporters wrote a long feature with a 
big picture of the commune Party secretary. He was seen smiling and 
waving. The article attracted many admirers and visitors to the region. 
It became quite a circus. Nationwide, officials tried to outbid one 
another in producing agricultural miracles. Deception became quite 
common at that time. 

In the fall of 1958, our country switched its focus from agriculture 
to steel production. Our slogan was chao-ying-gan-mei — "surpassing 
the U.K. and catching up with the U.S.” For the second time, the 
county sent me to Dongyang Commune with a work team. All the 
peasants, old and young, men and women, climbed up the nearby 
mountain. They cut down trees to fuel backyard furnaces and searched 



for iron ore. Meanwhile, officials went from door to door, ordering 
peasants to hand over their pots and pans, metal doorknobs, and farm 
tools for smelting. They kept the furnace going day and night. There 
was nobody harvesting crops, which were left to rot in the field. The 
mountain was stripped of forest. To cap it off, the “iron" they produced 
was totally useless. 

liao: After the peasants handed in their pots and pans, how did they 

zheng: All private property had been confiscated to pave the way for a 
full-blown Communist society. They told the peasants to dismantle 
their stoves for a communal kitchen set up for each village. It became 
illegal to cook your own meal at home. In one village, all families 
moved into a big warehouse so they could live together as a big social- 
ist family. Prior to collectivization, many families had raised pigs, 
sheep, and chickens. Then the commune seized all the animals and 
penned them in the commune lot. 

The second day after our arrival, the Party secretary took us to a 
communal kitchen at lunchtime. When we walked in, everyone 
stopped eating, stood up, and welcomed us with applause. Then they 
began to sing “Socialism is good." On behalf of the work team, I asked 
the peasants if they had enough food to eat. They all raised their voices 
and shouted in unison. Yes. Then a singer from the village performed to 
the accompaniment of bamboo clappers. He was singing something 
like this: Peasants no longer depend on heaven or earth for their liveli- 
hood. They depend on Chairman Mao and the Communist Party, 
which has brought happiness and bumper harvests. 

I walked up to each table and shook hands with everyone. I noticed 
corn bread piled up on their tables. Two big pots filled with sweet 
potato porridge sat in the corner of the kitchen. Each peasant, regard- 
less of age, was allowed four big pieces of corn bread with all the por- 
ridge they wanted. 

One peasant came up to me and complained that the bread and 
porridge didn’t last long: We need to have some meat or oil. The Party 
secretary pushed him away by saying: If you work hard, China will 
become a true Communist society. When that takes place, we will have 
an abundant supply of meat. You can eat a whole pig if you want. 

The Retired Official 125 

The guy walked away, with a confused expression on his face. The 
Party secretary told me to ignore him. 

Then he escorted six of us into a private dining room, where a table 
full of "twice-cooked pork,’" “stewed pig intestines,’’ and roast chicken 
was waiting. I asked why we were treated differently. The Party secre- 
tary answered: The commune leadership had a meeting yesterday and 
decided to slaughter a pig and some chickens to show our respect for 
the county work team members. In those years, it was very common for 
local officials to bribe work team members so they could report good 
news back to the government. In response, the Central Party Commit- 
tee had promulgated strict rules to crack down on corruption. So we 
were very prudent. I told the commune Party secretary to bring us 
some corn bread and porridge and dish out the meat to peasants during 

In the late fall of i960, 1 led another work team to Dongyang Com- 
mune. That was my third trip. T hings had changed dramatically. The 
Great Leap Forward distracted peasants from their farmwork. Crop 
yields were reduced, but peasants had to fulfill the government grain 
quotas. In many places, commune leaders had turned over the grain 
that peasants saved over the years to meet the quotas. Peasants were 
left with little food for the winter. 

The once prosperous communal kitchen was in disrepair. The wall 
separating the kitchen and the dining hall had been demolished 
because peasants accused cooks of embezzling food. They wanted 
to see exactly what the cooks were doing. At lunchtime, hundreds of 
people lined up, each carrying a bowl in their hand. They looked 
feeble. Lao Wang, a fellow work team member, told the Party secretary 
not to disturb the lunch crowd. We simply stood outside and watched. 
The dining hall looked very empty. All the tables and chairs had gone. 
The food served at lunch was porridge mixed with vegetables, rice, 
and husks. After people got their share, they squatted around in various 
circles. Most poured the porridge into their mouths quickly, then 
they all licked their bowls very attentively, as if they were going to swal- 
low the porcelain container. One local official who was our aide told 
me in private that having the rice and husk porridge was considered 
a special treat. Under normal circumstances, they could only have 
sweet-potato soup. We were really shocked. At the county level, food 
was scarce but each official was guaranteed a fixed amount per 



month. Nobody was starving there. Seeing the crowd here, I felt really 

After peasants finished their meals, the Party secretary led us into 
the dining hall and yelled loudly: Please welcome the comrades from 
the county work team to our commune. Everyone stood up and began 
to applaud rhythmically while shouting the slogan three times: The 
communal kitchen is good. We have excellent food. Thanks to Chair- 
man Mao! Thanks to the Party for leading us onto the socialist road! 
Before their slogan shouting ended, several people collapsed to the 
floor, too weak to stand up for so long. 

That evening, the work team called a public meeting, where 1 
relayed the latest news to the peasants: Considering the extremely dif- 
ficult situation in the rural areas, the Party had decided to reverse some 
of its earlier collectivization policies. Confiscated private property would 
be returned to its previous owners. Attendees were very excited at the 
news. One old guy stood up and said with tears in his eyes: Thank 
heavens! I can finally die under my own roof. But local officials, includ- 
ing the commune Party secretary, pulled long faces and remained 
sullen throughout my speech. After the meeting was over, the Party 
secretary pulled me aside and said, There’s nothing to give back to the 
peasants. Over the past two years, people have grabbed and stolen 
most of the public assets. They even smashed the big rice container in 
the public kitchen as a protest. I can't blame them because they are 
hungry. Its hopeless. I criticized him for being too pessimistic about 
the future. He defended himself by saying: As a Communist Party offi- 
cial, I have tried to do my work. But this is truly a tough situation. More 
and more people are dying of starvation. Do you know that people in 
this region are turning into cannibals? 

His remarks came as a shock. I probed further. The Party secretary 
looked around and then whispered to me: My daughter is married to a 
guy at a village on the other side of the mountain. She ran back home 
last week, telling me that many little girls in her village have been killed 
and eaten. 

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. If what he said was true, 

I needed to report the information back to the county as soon as 
possible. So I sent a fellow team member back to headquarters. I 
borrowed a bicycle and went directly to the village that the Party secre- 
tary had mentioned. 1 briefed Comrade Liu, the head of the work 

The Retired Official 


team there. He was totally in the dark about what was going on in the 

In the week that followed, the county conducted a thorough inves- 
tigation and revealed a terrible scandal involving cannibalism at the 
Fifth Production Division. That division encompassed 82 families, 
with a population of 491. Between December 1959 and November 
i960, peasants had killed and eaten 48 female children under the age 
of seven, which represented 90 percent of the female children in that 
age group. About 80 percent of the families were involved in cannibal- 

Wang Jiefang was an accountant at the Fifth Production Division. 
He was the first one to witness cannibalism. During the investiga- 
tion, he told us that starvation occurred at his village in December 
1959 when the communal kitchen had run out of food and began to 
serve wild vegetable soup or plain hot water. With food running out, 
villagers began to search for other alternative means. They wandered 
all over the mountain, eating anything they could get — leaves, roots 
of grass, wild vegetables, mushrooms, and worms. Many people acci- 
dentally swallowed some poisonous plants and died. As people 
became more and more desperate, they turned to their fellow human 

It was a different story for village officials. They had embezzled the 
grain and secretly cooked and ate the food several times a week at the 
communal kitchen after midnight. When confronted by the guilt- 
ridden security chief who was invited to the midnight meals, the village 
chief said. Ordinary villagers can collapse from hunger, but not the 
Party officials. If anything happens to us, the revolution would lose its 
backbone. After stuffing themselves with embezzled food, those hypo- 
critical officials would patrol the village, making sure that nobody 
was violating the policies and no smoke came out of individual home 

Wang and another village security guard were on duty on a clear 
moonlit night. While patrolling the village, they noticed wisps of smoke 
coming out of Mo Erwa’s house. Wang was quite surprised because 
Mo Erwa was quite an honest peasant who had never done anything 
illegal before. He and his wife had seven kids. Two of them had already 
died of starvation. So Wang and the guard decided to find out if Mo 
Erwa had stolen food from somewhere. 



Mo Erwa’s house had both a big front yard and a backyard, fenced 
in by tall dry cornstalks. So Wang and the security guard crept along 
and hid behind the fence. They saw Mo Erwa’s wife sitting at the front 
porch. Apparently, she was on the lookout for patrolling officials. Wang 
and the guards walked stealthily around to the back, where there was a 
door leading to the kitchen. Wang said he could see a small kerosene 
light glowing feebly in the dark. So he and the guard kicked the back 
door open and burst in. Wang raised his flashlight and yelled, Don't 
move. Mo Erwa and his kids were scared. They blew off the kerosene 
light and began running around in the dark, like rats. In the process, 
someone kicked over a big boiling pot on the ground. Then the whole 
room steamed up and smelled of greasy meat. Wang yelled again: Don't 
move. Otherwise I'm going to shoot. His threat worked. When Mo 
Erwa and the kids calmed down, Wang struck a match and re-lit the 
kerosene light. He realized that Mo Erwa had dug a hole in the kitchen 
floor and was using it as a makeshift stove. The pot lay upside down 
and chunks of meat lay scattered on the floor. Wang asked: Where did 
you get the meat from? Mo Erwa answered calmly: We just boiled our 
three-year-old daughter. The guard didn't believe what he had just 
heard. He picked up one piece from the floor and examined it under 
the flashlight. Before the guard had a chance to find out, Mo Erwa 
snatched it from the guard and stuffed it into his mouth. Then all the 
kids followed his example and dashed down to the floor to grab the 
remaining morsels. Despite Wang’s yells and threats, the family 
devoured all the meat within minutes. Wang and the guard finally sub- 
dued Mo Erwa, tied his hands behind his back, and then dragged him 
to the village chief ’s office. 

The next day, the village chief sent several guys over to investigate. 
They found a small bag of bones and the little girl’s skull, which had 
been buried in the backyard. The village chief was so disgusted by the 
atrocity he ordered two militiamen to lash Mo Erwa fifty times. Mo 
Erwa screamed and his whole family knelt outside the interrogation 
room, appealing for mercy. According to Mo Erwa, the family didn’t 
have anything to feed the little girl. Lack of food had stunted her 
growth. So they just killed her. The village chief interrupted Mo Erwa 
by saying: Do you know that killing and eating your daughter is a capi- 
tal crime? Mo Erwa argued back: She was going to die of starvation 
anyway. It was better for us to sacrifice her to save the rest of the fam- 


The Retired Official 

ily. We just hope she would reincarnate into something else in the next 
life. It’s too hard to be a human being. 

After the lashing, the village chief convened a meeting with sev- 
eral other officials. They decided to keep it quiet for fear that the 
incident could cost them their jobs. So two days later, Mo Erwa 
was released, but his story soon spread fast among the villagers. They 
took it as a sign of approval from the government and more families 
began to follow suit. Since boys were traditionally favored over girls, 
young girls were targeted. Some families ruthlessly murdered and 
ate their own daughters. Others would exchange their children with 
neighbors. Since a child could only last them for a couple of days, 
some, including Mo Erwa, began to kidnap children from other vil- 
lages. Booby traps, which were used for wolves, were employed to cap- 
ture kids. 

By the time we found out, the practice had spread to other 

liao: Did you report the results ot the investigation to the provincial 

zheng: I wrote a lengthy report and hand-delivered it to the county 
chief. I was hoping that the government could take legal measures to 
stop the killing of children and halt the spread of cannibalism in the 
region. I also recommended that the county chief bring those cases to 
the attention of the provincial government and ask for the badly 
needed food subsidies. But the chief sighed after reading my report: 
What can the provinical government do? The central government has 
already delivered food subsidies, thirty-five kilograms of rice and corn 
per family for the whole year. The whole country is experiencing hard- 
ship. He was right. The newspapers carried photos of Chairman Mao 
wearing patched jackets and pants. He had cultivated a small garden in 
front of his house to grow vegetables. Liu Shaoqi, the president at that 
time, went to the Beijing suburbs to pick wild berries to supplement 
his food ration. 

liao: Don’t you think that was just for show? Chairman Mao and other 
senior leaders should be held responsible for the famine. 


■ 3 ° 

zheng: I don’t blame Chairman Mao. Local officials, such as Li Jin- 
quan, the Party secretary of the Southwest Regional Bureau, should 
take full responsibility for the disasters in our province. He hid the 
truth from the Central Party Committee. He forced peasants to turn 
over all their grain to the central government, despite the fact that peo- 
ple were starving to death. He told the central government that 
Sichuan Province had wonderful climate conditions and an oversupply 
of grain. He even offered to help out other provinces while people in 
his region were dying of starvation. 

At Dongyang Commune, and in all the rural areas of Sichuan, 
peasants ate a type of white clay called Guanyin Mud. I tried it once. 
The stuff tasted sweet and metallic. The clay was considered precious 
because it helped soothe the sense of extreme hunger. Some ate too 
much and the mud got stuck inside the intestines. Then hunger turned 
into painful cramps. I constantly saw people writhing on the ground 
with severe stomach pain from the clay. The most effective laxatives 
were raw vegetable oil or castor oil, which cleared out the mud but also 
killed people with uncontrolled diarrhea. 

In those years, the lives of ordinary people were worthless. Those 
in power had access to food. They didn't have to eat white clay or kill 
their daughters. But poor families had to resort to extreme means to 

uao: How did you finally stop the practice of cannibalism in the region? 

zheng: Three months after our investigation, Mo Erwa was caught 
again. He had kidnapped and killed two boys from a nearby village with 
booby traps. This time, the county had to take action. The local militia- 
men arrested Mo Erwa and put him on trial. He was sentenced to 
death. The county held a public execution with the hope of intimidat- 
ing villagers and preventing more cases of cannibalism. Before the 
local militiaman shot him, Mo Erwa screamed loudly: I’m innocent. I 
was hungry. His cries brought tears to the eyes of the local militiamen. 
They couldn’t pull the trigger. Eventually, the county had to get the 
police to finish the job. 

liao: What happened later on? 

The Retired Official 131 

zheng: In the spring of 1961, there was still no relief from the famine. I 
went back again to Dongyang Commune as head of a four-man work 
team. I wasn t doing too well either. My legs were all swollen. I was lit- 
erally wobbling all day long. We ate lots of corn soup with wild vegeta- 
bles and grass. 1 was quite young at that time and pulled through. Also, 
1 could indulge myself with a couple of nice hearty meals each time I 
returned to the county government to attend my monthly meetings. 
There was enough food for officials at the county cafeteria. 

liao: People in the city were much better off than those in the rural 

zheng: Urban residents were guaranteed a monthly ration. The govern- 
ment called on urban residents to donate food and money to peasants 
in the rural areas. But it was too little to make a dent. In my region, a 
second wave of cannibalism began. Luckily, none of the cases involved 
killing children. People simply cut flesh off those who had died of 

liao: Did you arrest more people to stop the practice? 

zheng: Legally, it fell into a gray area because those people didn’t kill 
anyone. It was hard to prosecute. Leaving moral and ethical issues out, 
we had to admit that eating human flesh was a better alternative than 
eating white clay. It was easy to digest, even though we were told by 
medical personnel that one could catch all sorts of disease from con- 
suming a dead person's flesh. People were desperate and didn't care 
what diseases they could catch. When a relative died, the flesh would 
be cut off for the living. 

When that occurred, we really didn't have any legal justifications to 
arrest people. We simply turned a blind eye. Well, there were many vil- 
lagers who resisted eating human flesh. One time, I went to visit sev- 
eral families in a big courtyard. Four villagers were lying on top of 
wooden doors taken from their houses. They were lying on their stom- 
achs, with their legs spread apart. Several others were pouring tung oil 
into their rear ends to loosen them up. One guy explained to me that 
initially, they had tried to force people to drink the tung oil, but it 
smelled and tasted really bad. Many had thrown up, and it was hard to 



get it into the intestines. So they decided to do it from the other end. I 
recommended that they use vegetable oil, which was less poisonous. 
Those folks looked at me strangely and said: Do you know that we have 
never seen any vegetable oil for over two years? It's true that tung oil is 
tough on the intestines. But as long as we can get the clay out of our 
system, a little damage to the intestines is worth it. I couldn’t stay and 
watch the operation. Before I walked out, one guy opened his eyes and 
said to me: Tell the government that we have never touched human 
flesh. We would rather die than commit a crime like that. 

I didn’t know how to answer him. Looking back, you have to admit 
that Chinese peasants are the most kind and obedient. They never 
thought of rebelling against those who had brought them so much suf- 
fering. I bet the idea had never occurred to them. 

liao: Even if they had had the idea, they wouldn't have gotten far. The 
Party controlled the guns. Chairman Mao wasn't afraid of people 
rebelling against him. He could crush them like bugs. 

zheng: The Party was worried about peasant rebellion. That was the 
reason they sent the work team to the rural areas. We were like the fire- 
fighters, trying to put out fires of discontent among peasants. 

liao: Did you suceed? 

ZHENG: We did. Aside from handling cases of cannibalism, our main job 
was to ease the Party's extreme policies and help peasants survive. 
There was a popular saying among officials at that time: “No matter 
whether it was a white cat or a black cat, if it catches the mouse, it is a 
good cat.” We would do whatever it took to save lives. The communal 
cafeteria was disbanded. Villagers were allowed to get their cooking 
utensils back. Brick stoves were rebuilt at each individual home so that 
peasants could cook their own meals. In the old days, the government 
subsidies were distributed to the commune, and commune officials 
would normally embezzle some and redistribute the rest to each indi- 
vidual production division. Then the production division would take 
some and then allocate the subsidies to each village communal 
kitchen. By the time the subsidized food landed in the bowl of each vil- 
lager, there was only a tiny amount left. We streamlined the process by 


The Retired Official 

distributing the emergency food aid directly to the villagers. The daily 
ration was half a kilo per person. Members of the work team stood by 
the warehouse and made sure nobody was stealing the food aid. We 
also allocated a tiny plot of land for each family so they could grow 
some vegetables and crops for their own keep. Of course, that ziliudi, 
or land for self-keep” system, came under fire during the Cultural Rev- 
olution as a capitalistic practice. 

liao: Well, the capitalist policies did save lives during the famine, 
didn't it? 

zheng: Yes. The situation gradually improved. In the summer of 1962, 
starvation pretty much stopped. Prior to 1962, we were under a lot of 
pressure to find food for peasants. We thought about food day and 
night and came up with many creative ways. For example, we gathered 
all the dry corn, wheat, and rice stalks, ground them into powder, and 
boiled them for a long time to extract starch. Then we used the starch 
to make pancakes. They tasted pretty good. We also sent people to col- 
lect urine. We then poured the urine into a big container and mixed it 
with garbage. After a week, there would be a layer ol green algae float- 
ing on top of the mess. We scraped the thin layer out, added some 
water and sugar, and drank it. It didn’t taste bad at all. 

liao: 1 have to say that you guys were dedicated Party officials. By the 
way, I read an article recently, saying that during the three-year famine, 
peasants in a village rounded up former landlords, rich peasants, and 
other counterrevolutionaries, slaughtered them, boiled their bodies in 
an open-air cauldron, and then ate the flesh. People then shouted and 
screamed in celebration of what they called "triumph in class struggle.” 
Did you witness anything like that? 

zheng: No. I strongly question the accuracy of the story. Cannibalism 
was driven by hunger, not by hatred. It is true that the landowning class 
was attacked in several political campaigns, but I'm not aware of any 
incident like what you have just mentioned. There was a commonly 
accepted moral standard in the rural areas that eating human flesh was 
wrong, even though it was the flesh of a counterrevolutionary. More- 
over, cannibalistic activities were carried out secretly because people 



knew that if they were caught, they would have been punished by the 
people’s government. Cannibalism occurred when our government 
couldn't feed its people. It’s unfortunate that we lost more people in 
peacetime than during the war. The Party made some serious mistakes. 
Half a century has passed, yet the leadership still hasn’t offered an offi- 
cial explanation to people. It’s sad. 


for his entire life, my grandfather never ventured out of his 
hometown. He was a former landowner in Sichuan’s Helping 
region. The land he had purchased over the years made him 
rich before the Communist takeover in 1949, but it also became 
the source of endless misery and trouble. In 1950, when Chair- 
man Mao initiated the reforms of distributing land to the poor 
and classifying landoumers as the enemy of the people, my 
grandfather lost all his property and was the target of many of 
Maos political campaigns. 

I always wanted to find out about his life, but never had the 
opportunity. He passed away in 1988 at the age of eighty -four. 

A fellow writer of mine, Zhou Mingyue, presented an 
opportunity for me to make it up. His grandfather, Zhou 
Shude, was also a former landowner. Recently, I visited him at 
a village in northern Sichuan. At the age of eighty-nine, the 
senior Zhou was lucid and articulate. 

liao yiwu : Sir, at your age, what’s your biggest wish? 

ZHOU SHUDE: I don’t have any big wish. I have turned into a lonely old 
man. I have raised three sons and three daughters. None of them is liv- 
ing with me now. They all have promising careers somewhere else. 

liao: Your house is a little run-down. Why cant your children give you 
some money to fix it? 

zhou: Mingyue s father has asked me many times; he says he will cover 
my living expenses, to go live with my second daughter in Panjiagou. 
But if I go, who is going to take care of this ancestral headquarters? On 
top of that, 1 would have to forfeit my resident registration card and 
would no longer be considered a member of Zhou Village. When that 


happens, the government could assign my land to someone else. This 
place looks shabby now, but when it was new, it was a beautiful court- 
yard house with a left wing, right wing, a main hall, an annex room, and 
a servants quarters. My grandpa had purchased the property and 
passed it on to my father. In 1934, my father died of exhaustion from 
overwork. In his will, he divided all of his land and this house, and left 
equal parts for my elder brother and me. 

My brother, Zhou Shugui, was the black sheep of the family. He's 
been dead for many years, but I still can't forgive him to this day. I'm 
not done with him. Someday, I'm going to settle the score with him, 
even if it means I have to follow him to hell. Anyway, after he got his 
inheritance, he would go visit the city a couple of times a month, eating 
and drinking at nice restaurants, and visiting prostitutes. Even worse, 
he became hooked on opium. Young guys like you probably don’t know 
what it's like to be an opium addict. It means your whole life is ruined. 
Stacks of cash can be smoked away just like that. That was the case 
with my brother. Within a few years, he sold his land and then his 
house to feed his habit. You know what? He even pawned his wife. 
When his wife found out, she jumped into a nearby pond to commit 
suicide, but was stopped by relatives. That still didn’t awaken his con- 
science. Finally, his wife went to the Zhou clan leader, begging him to 
grant her a divorce. 

The clan leader sent a village security guard to my brother’s house, 
dragged him out, and tied him to a big tree in the middle of the village. 
He was left there for a week, getting soaked in the rain and baked in 
the sun. That was our way of detoxification. However, minutes after he 
was untied from the tree, he dashed into my house, begging for money 
to buy opium. After I said no, he smacked his head on the ground, 
slapped himself on the face, and threw himself at the wall. Seeing that 
I wasn’t moved by those tricks, he began to threaten me, saying that he 
would burn our ancestral shrine if I refused to give him money. Dis- 
heartened as I was, I decided to grant him his wish, provided that he 
would agree in writing to sever blood relations with me. He couldn’t 
care less. He put his fingerprint on the agreement, snatched the ten sil- 
ver dollars that I gave him, and disappeared. Our clan leader was a very 7 
kindhearted man. Out of desperation, he called all the Zhou family 
members together and officially declared that my brother, Zhou 
Shugui, was a disgrace and would be forever expelled from our clan. If 

The Former Landowner 137 

ever he was seen coming into the village, the leader would issue an 
order to have his legs broken. 

To redeem my family’s reputation, I worked very hard, rising early 
and going to bed late. 1 took up the salt-trading business while my wife, 
who was six months pregnant, worked in the field with hired farmers. I 
vowed to buy back the property sold away by my brother. While it was 
hard to earn money, it was equally difficult to keep it. By 1937, I man- 
aged to pay off all the debts that my brother had owed and invited my 
sister-in-law and her children back to our house. They lived in the right 
wing. It was one big happy family again. Everyone contributed in his or 
her own way. Both people and livestock were healthy. Our life was 
finally set on the right track. Before I went to bed every night, 1 lit a 
candle and burned incense, thanking my ancestors and asking for their 

Unfortunately, our good life didnt last long. The Communists 
came. In 1950, the local county government sent a Land Reform work 
team. I was branded a member of the exploiting class. Our clan leader 
and the former village security chief were both classified as “evil 
landowners. After being paraded in the county in a series of public 
denunciation meetings, both of them were executed. My wife and 
I were grouped together with a bunch of other landowners or rich 
farmers, and shuffled to the village square to witness the execution. 
Aiya, it was very traumatic. I was educated at a private school, and 
was well versed in Confucianism. I was kind to others. I had never 
harmed anyone or harbored any ill feelings toward others. However, 
my fellow villagers, who used to be polite and respectful, had suddenly 
changed, as if they had all donned different facial masks. At the 
speak bitterness meetings,’ two of my hired farmers accused me of 
exploiting them by forcing them to work in the cold winter days and 
randomly deducting their pay. I didn’t agree with their accusations 
because I was working along with them in the field. Also, even under 
Communism, we still need to work the fields in wintertime, don’t we? 
Those two traitors! I used to treat them so generously. They even led 
the government work team to my house and reviewed the inventories 
of my land, property, and livestock. They annulled all my land titles, 
land leasing, and property rental agreements. They confiscated every- 
thing I owned. 

Of course, the world around me suddenly changed: rich people 


ended up suffering and the poor became the masters. It was hard to 
accept it at first. 

The thing that hurt me the most was my brother. That bastard! He 
squandered all of his wealth on drugs and became a street beggar. Then 
the world changed. As a poor street person, he was made a master 
of the land, and rose to the top. As for me, the rich landowner, I 
became the enemy of the people and sank to the bottom. Overnight, 
my brother turned into a devout Communist supporter. He denounced 
me at a public speak bitterness meeting, slapped me on the face, and 
scolded me for oppressing him and treating him like a pig and a dog. 
He accused me of illegally taking his land, and abducting his wife and 
children. What a liar! Heaven knows I didn’t deserve the treatment. 
Everyone in the village knew that 1 helped support his wife and raise 
his children. But when my brother was spewing out those lies, there 
wasn’t a single person who stood up and spoke on my behalf. I was mad 
as hell and couldn’t breathe. Soon I passed out right on the spot. By the 
time I regained consciousness several days later, I noticed several 
strangers had moved into my courtyard house. All my family members 
were kicked out into the small annex room. My brother occupied the 
three large rooms in the right wing. With the help of the Communists, 
he now possessed a house, which was mine, a plot of land, which 1 
used to own, and a family, which I had supported. Who would have 
guessed that an opium addict could have been rewarded with such 

Each time I saw him walk around in the courtyard, I was full of 
anger. As time went by, 1 got used to it and accepted my fate. Some- 
times, when we bumped into each other, he would mock me in private: 
Little brother, you worked like an ox for your whole life. Have you man- 
aged to keep our ancestral fortunes intact? I would answer: I’m the for- 
mer landowner, and you are the poor revolutionary peasant. I'm the 
enemy of the people. You and I should draw a clear line. We don’t 
belong to the same class. He would say: Fuck it. If it hadn't been for 
opium, both of us would have been classified as landowners. We would 
have been executed by now. 

liao: Your big brother wanted to make sure that you could appreciate 
what he had done for the family. How did you manage to get through 
that period of your life? 

The Former Landowner 


zhou: Mine wasn t the only family that had lost everything. There were 
thousands of people who had been branded as landowners and coun- 
terrevolutionaries. All ol those people had been deprived of their 
wealth and had broken families. It was a change of dynasty and some- 
one was bound to suffer. In those days, I kept telling my wife: The most 
important thing is that we are both alive. We have a future ahead of us. 
1 told her not to commit suicide or do anything stupid. Since my chil- 
dren were all grown-ups, 1 told them they could either sever their ties 
with us or they could leave for faraway places. It was up to them. 

There is a Chinese saying which goes: “All misfortunes originate in 
your big mouth." So I kept my mouth shut and nobody came to bother 
me. In the old days, they installed a loudspeaker in this courtyard. 
Each time, there was a speak bitterness meeting, the loudspeaker 
would be turned on. Our names would be called. About twenty of us 
bad elements would be ordered to gather in front of the podium. We 
would stand there, with our heads down. Over ten militiamen would 
watch us. Sometimes, at small-scale meetings, we would be asked to 
sit down. See this tiny stool over here. I had it made in the year of the 
Land Reform for those public meetings. It’s still sturdy. Its surface has 
become as slippery and shiny as a piece of stone slate. If it was a large- 
scale political meeting that involved the whole county, we had to walk 
five to ten kilometers in a single file to the county headquarters. At 
those meetings, the attendees could number over ten thousand. All the 
leaders would sit in the first two rows on the stage. Then, over a hun- 
dred bad guys like me would stand in front of the stage facing the 
crowd. The meeting could last for many hours. 

Sometimes we had to stay out for three consecutive days for differ- 
ent public gatherings. We would get up before dawn, cook some rice, 
and try to eat as much as we could. It would be a whole day event. We 
wouldnt be able to come home until late in the evening. Getting 
through those long meetings could be tough. It was very easy for me to 
fall asleep. That happened a couple of times. The militiamen beat me 
up pretty badly. I was in my forties then. Years of hard labor, such as 
carrying heavy sacks of salt on my back, made me pretty strong. The 
tough punishment and the long hours of standing at those public meet- 
ings didn t bother me much. But as time went by, my back started to go 
because the militiamen forced me to bend down very deeply. I never 
complained or disobeyed. At the end of the Land Reform movement, 



the leader of the work team came to talk with me. He complimented 
me for being cooperative with the government. I was all smiles and 
bowed to him. In my heart, I felt as if someone had been stabbing me 
with a blunt knife. 

By the 1970s, those political campaigns were running out of steam. 
County-level public meetings were no longer in fashion and decreased 
in frequency. People’s hostility toward former landowners was some- 
how softened. Gradually, my tellow villagers began to renew their 
friendship with me since everyone in the village was in one way or 
another related by blood. We all shared the same family name Zhou. So 
as the saying goes, fortune can leave you, but your health, your family, 
and true friends are indispensable. 

liao: When I was a kid, our school always invited poor peasants to our 
speak bitterness meetings. The intent was to urge young students to 
forget the “bitter past under the Nationalist government and to cher- 
ish the “happiness” under Communism. At those meetings, we were 
obligated to eat rotten food so we could get an idea of the kind of food 
that poor peasants used to consume in pre-Communist days. One day, 
we went to visit the mansion of a big former landowner who had been 
executed by the government during the Land Reform movement. The 
mansion was converted into a museum. There were many exhibits 
showing how the landowner had exploited his farmers and how he had 
tortured those who couldn’t afford to pay back debts. We were shocked 
by his brutality. After that, we hated all landowners. After hearing your 
stories, I get the impression that the landowners were pretty nice 
people. Do you mean to say that the Land Reform movement was a 

zhou: You are a smart person and can decide for yourself. Let bygones 
be bygones. The government rehabilitated my name in 1979. 1 no 
longer carry the “evil landowner" label. I’m grateful to Deng Xiaoping 
for his economic reform policies. The Party realized its mistakes and 
was not afraid to correct them. I was given the second chance to be a 
respectful human being. I guess I need to correct myself here. I didn't 
mean to say that the Party realized its mistakes and was not afraid to 
redress them. I should say I am not afraid to redress my own mistakes. 
Nowadays, my life as an ordinary peasant is much better than that of a 

The Former Landowner 141 

landowner before 1949. We have electricity and TV. We have plenty of 
meat and you can eat however much you want. I his was never possible 
in the old days. We could only afford to eat meat once a week. My 
grandson, Mingyue, told me that even prisoners can eat meat twice a 
week. Both my grandfather and my father were country bumpkins. 
They worked in the fields along with our hired farmers. Sometimes, 
they overworked the ox that pulled the plows. When the animal began 
to cough blood, humans took over the plows. That was how we accu- 
mulated wealth. Not like today. Young men and women leave the vil- 
lage empty-handed and migrate to big cities to look for jobs. In a couple 
of years, they come home with money. It's magic. They can build new 
houses and buy lots of stuff. If we apply the same classification stan- 
dards used during the Land Reform, half of the villagers today would 
be called rich landowners. My son is a teacher in a big city. My grand- 
son, Mingyue, has graduated from a university, and I heard he has a 
doctorate degree or something. In the old days, having an advanced 
degree was very rare in this part of the country. My private tutor used to 
tell me that the scholar Hu Shi grew up here. He had a doctoral degree 
in the early 1900s. The emperor met him in person and sought advice 
from him. Just imagine how scholarly and knowledgeable my grandson 
is. I assume the Communist leaders also consult him frequently. Who 

As for my past, I have forgiven everything and moved on. Like an 
ancient Chinese saying goes: “Experiencing the most difficult hard- 
ships makes one the toughest of all human beings.” As an old fart 
myself, I have nothing to regret or to be bitter about. I simply see my 
past sufferings as something that 1 have endured on behalf of my chil- 
dren and grandchildren. At the beginning of the Land Reform, my fel- 
low villagers made up lies, saying that I had kept a secret ledger, jotting 
down every piece of injustice that others had done to me with the 
intent of settling scores with my enemies in the future. They even 
linked me with the bad things that happened within the Communist 
Party headquarters in Beijing. When senior Communist leaders, such 
as Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, and the Gang of Four were purged, the local 
government called me “the filial descendant and loyal follower” of 
those disgraced Party leaders. When we talk about it today, it sounds 
like a ridiculous charge. But in those days they really meant it. For 
example, during the Cultural Revolution, there was a slogan which 



read “Down with Zhou Shude, the loyal descendant of Liu Shaoqi." I 
didn’t know who Liu Shaoqi was at that time, never mind that 1 was 
related to him. If 1 do get the chance to claim a royal relative, I want to 
be related to Deng Xiaoping because he helped reverse my verdict. I 
don't have to be his descendant. But if he wanted me to be his slave, 
I’m all for it. Anyhow, as time went by, I cared less and less about what 
other people said about me. That was fate and 1 accepted it. 

liao: From your story so far, I can tell you are quite contented with life. 
That probably explains your longevity. 

zhou: I’m turning eighty-nine this year. I’ve long become tired of life. 
What can I do? The more I want to die, the further away I am from 
death. The pine coffin that lies in the main hall was made for me over 
twenty years ago. As you know, in China, old people like to have their 
coffin made before they die. It’s an auspicious thing to do. Several feng 
shui masters have visited this house and they were full of praises for 
this location. The annex room, located in the southeast corner, cap- 
tures all the good feng shui. That was probably why my fortune could 
turn around after years of suffering. The upcoming good fortune 
should not fall on an old fart like me. It should follow my children and 
grandchildren. After he graduated from high school in the mid-1970s, 
my grandson, Mingyue, was denied the opportunity to join the army or 
to find a job in the city because of me. In 1979, after the government 
took away my label, Mingyue was allowed to enter college. The other 
grandchildren of mine are also doing pretty well. At the moment, my 
great-grandchildren are already in elementary schools. 

liao: I’m sure you will live to be a hundred. 

zhou : Why do I want to? I’m the only one left with this courtyard house. 
The rest have either died or moved out. I must have taken all the luck 
of longevity from the other members of this family. After I was kicked 
out of the main section of the house, none of the new occupants lived 
past fifty. Can you believe that? My brother, Zhou Shugui, died in the 
famine of i960. So did my wife. My brother deserved to die. Oh well, 
since he is dead now, I guess I should show some respect. 

The Former Landowner 143 

liao: You should live with your children or grandchildren so they can 
take care of you . 

zhou: At the invitation of Mingyue’s father, 1 lived in the city for two 
months. My son is a respected high school teacher. He lived in a high- 
rise on the school campus. I was so bored that I soon became ill. I felt 
like a pigeon trapped in a cage. I couldn’t walk around the building 
freely to get fresh air because each time I was down on the street, a 
bunch of high school students would follow me and poke fun at me. 
They treated me like some kind of antique or exotic animal. 

One day, 1 was getting some sun by a basketball court. It was warm. 
So I unzipped my pants and began to catch fleas on my underwear. 
Suddenly, I heard some loud screaming. If this had been in the coun- 
tryside, nobody would give a damn about such a trivial thing. But it was 
a big deal in the city. How dare Mr. Zhou’s father unzip his pants in 
public? It totally embarrassed my son. There was another thing that 
drove my daughter-in-law nuts. She couldn’t stand it when I smoked 
tobacco in the house. I was forced to smoke on the balcony. There are 
too many rules in the big cities. On the street, you have to pay to take a 
dump at a public toilet. In the rural areas here, you can take a pee or 
dump anywhere you want. It doesn't matter where you relieve yourself 
around here because all the crap will be gone the next day. The wild 
dogs will have eaten it all. 

I have been pretty mad at Mingyue and several of my grandchil- 
dren. Those youngsters have been bugging their parents about demol- 
ishing this courtyard house. Well, you can't really call this a courtyard 
house. The other three sides have all collapsed. This side where I live 
is OK, but the beams have been corroded by white ants. In the 
evenings, I can sometimes hear squeaking on the roof. One of these 
days, the roof will collapse. However, the stone and rock foundation is 
still pretty solid. Look at that stone lion statue in front of the house. 
Over the past many years, the head of the lion has become shiny 
because I touch it all the time for good luck. This house has been 
around for over a hundred years. Those youngsters don’t understand 
the fact that once we move, it means the end of my life. 

liao: I didn’t realize that after years of getting bullied for being an “evil 
landowner,” you are still quite stubborn. 



ZHOU: That’s right. The thing that I hate the most is to be manipulated 
by other people. When my grandchildren come to visit me, they are too 
afraid to live here for fear of fleas. I have cats. Those animals love to 
play in my bed and sleep by me. I’m old and my body is cold all the 
time. In the evenings, those cats offer lots of warmth. I always talk with 
them, telling them stuff that would be of interest to people in my gen- 
eration. You never know, cats could be the reincarnation of people who 
have died. 

liao (laughing): You don’t sound like a former landowner. You sound like 
an old monk who is now taking care of an old temple. 

zhou: Speaking of this old temple, I don't think I can take care of it for 
too long. According to Chinese tradition, if a person passes away at an 
advanced age, it’s considered an auspicious thing. His friends and rela- 
tives would snatch the stuff used by the deceased and offer it to 
younger people as a gift so they could rub off the luck of long life. I’m 
not even dead yet, but my friends and relatives in this village use all 
kinds of excuses to come visit me and steal my stuff — bamboo shelves, 
cricket cages, straw raincoat, and straw hats. They have even grabbed 
my bowls and chopsticks. 

liao: You still have a long way to go. Your grandson Mingyue and I are 
hoping that you could someday move to the city. There are many senior 
people in the city. You can practice tai chi, go fishing, or raise dogs and 

zhou: Where should I put my coffin if I move to the city? 

liao: You won’t need a coffin. In the city, people are cremated after they 

zhou: Burn me into ashes? That won’t work for me. Cremation will 
make my reincarnation impossible. To tell you the truth, I have already 
chosen the place for my burial, next to Mingyue’s grandma. I have 
already had a hole dug for me. It’s a good location and the feng shui 
master has seen it. It’s located right on the tail end of the Phoenix 
Mountain. There is an old saying that goes: “Good fortune lies at the 

The Former Landowner 


head of the dragon and the tail of the phoenix." It will bring good luck 
for my descendants. I have lived a full life. I feel as if it was worth being 
labeled a landowner. I have suffered to redeem the sins of my children 
and have created future happiness for them. I heard that we will soon 
be allowed to sell and buy land again. Aiya, there will be more landown- 
ers and rich people than before. Things just move in cycles. 


The Yi ethnic group, with a population of over seven million, is 
one of the fifty-five minorities in China today. Most Yi people 
live in the southwestern provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, 
Guizhou, and Guangxi, farming and raising livestock. Before 
1949, the Yi people were stratified into four different castes, 
with Nuohuo, meaning Black Yi, as the ruling class. Tire other 
ranks were considered Black Yi's subordinates. According to a 
Chinese government report, the rank of Nuohuo was deter- 
mined by blood lineage, and used to make up 7 percent of the 
total Yi population, but owned 60 to yo percent of the arable 
land. In the early 1950s, the government sent work teams to the 
Yi region and launched the Land Reform movement to end 
what the Communists called oppression and exploitation by 
the Nuohuo class. 

In December of 2005, I visited a Yi village in Yunnan. My 
guide introduced me to Zhang Meizhi, a Nuohuo and the wife 
of a former district chief. Zhang was eighty-four years old, but 
in good spirits. When I arrived at her house, she stood up from 
her chair, her back hunched but her wrinkled face beaming 
with a smile. I sat down with Zhang and her two children — 
daughter Yang Sixian, 59, and son Yang Siyi, 57. 

liao yiwu: I passed by a big traditional courtyard house that stood tall 
and imposing in the middle of the village. My guide told me the house 
belongs to your family. When was the last time you lived there? 

zhang meizhi: In the early 1950s. After the Land Reform movement 
started, the newly founded Poor Peasants Revolutionary Committee 
forced us to move into a cowshed. 

liao. Could you tell me what happened? The Land Reform movement 
affected the lives of millions of people. However, that part of history is 


The Yi District Chief's Wife 

gradually fading from people’s memories. All the history books say that 
the Land Reform movement enabled the Communist Party to change 
Chinas unequal system of land ownership. However, there is no men- 
tion ol the brutal fact that over two million people were executed at 

zhang: I dont know if my story will help young people learn history. 
But, on a personal level, I lost over ten family members in that chaotic 

liao: Lets start from the beginning, flow many people were there in 
your family? 

zhang: I had quite a large family. On my husband’s side, he had two 
brothers. The eldest one used to be a well-known political figure in the 
region. He left home at an early age and attended the Yunnan Provin- 
cial Military Academy. In 1935’ a t the age of twenty-five, the governor of 
Yunnan appointed him to be the chief of Deqin County. As you know, 
for someone who grew up in a remote and isolated region like Zehei, 
becoming a county chief was a big deal. 

In the old days, Deqin was overrun with triads and gangsters. They 
colluded with local officials to bully the innocent. After he assumed 
office, the eldest brother took tough measures and cleaned up the area 
in no time. He gained quite a reputation for himself. The Nationalist 
government even awarded him a medal for his good work. He was a 
strong believer in the old government under Chiang Kai-shek, and 
there was no way he would have switched his loyalty to Chairman 
Mao’s Communist government. Luckily, he had died before Mao's 
army came. Otherwise he would have been tortured and executed. The 
second brother served as a sheriff in the Sayingpan region. My hus- 
band followed in the footsteps of two of his brothers and served as the 
Yongshan district chief. In my family, I had two siblings. My brother, 
Zhang Mnxin, became the chief of Zehei Township. I had a sister who 
was married to a local landlord. 

In 1952, when I turned thirty-one, a work team from Deqin County 
arrived in our region to mobilize local peasants to join the Land Reform 
campaign. Peasants were encouraged to speak out against the land- 
lords and former government officials and confiscate their property. A 
week later, the work team arrested my husband and my brother. They 


locked the two of them up in the Zehei Elementary School for a few 
days and then transferred them to a county jail. 

liao: What happened to you and the rest of the family? 

zhang: During the first couple of weeks, the work team left us alone. 
One day in September, however, several militiamen showed up at my 
house. They said I had to join my husband and brother at a speak bit- 
terness meeting and to hear my fellow villagers tell stories of their suf- 
ferings under my family’s oppression. They tied my hands behind my 
back and then escorted me to the playground. When 1 got there, I saw 
many villagers had already gathered there. They were shouting slogans. 
The militiamen ordered me to stand in front of the crowd, side by side 
with a dozen former landlords or rich peasants. The stage was about 
ten meters away, right behind us. I turned around and saw my husband 
and my brother. They were kneeling on the ground, their arms and legs 
tied up with thick ropes and their mouths gagged with rags. A narrow 
black bamboo slate stuck out from the back of their collars. In the old 
days, I had seen criminals who had those bamboo slates in place before 
being sent to the execution grounds. 1 immediately realized what was 
going to happen. And I started to cry. 

Soon the meeting began. Two militiamen pushed our heads down. 
One Communist official in military uniform went on the stage and 
shouted slogans: “Death to our class enemy! Long live the victory of the 
Land Reform!” The whole crowd raised their right arms and followed in 
unison. Then, after the shouting died down, the official declared 
through the microphone: These two class enemies on the stage have 
been sentenced to death by the village committee. The execution will 
be carried out immediately. His words drew a wave of loud cheers. 
Then the loudspeaker started to blast revolutionary songs. The militia- 
men pushed my husband and my brother off the stage. My group was 
ordered to follow them to the execution ground by a river. A large 
crowd walked behind us. After we arrived, the militiamen put me about 
two or three meters away from my husband and made me watch. Then 
two guys shoved my husband and my brother down on their knees, 
pulled the bamboo slates out from inside their collars, pointed a rifle at 
their chests, and then bang, bang, Bred two shots. The sound of the 
gunshots was so deafening. My brother was a big guy. After he was 
shot, his body tilted a little but didn’t fall immediately. A second mili- 

The Yi District Chief’s Wife 149 

tiaman stepped up and fired two more shots at his chest. Blood spewed 
out and splashed all over. The guy was startled by the blood. He kicked 
my brothers body really hard, wiped the blood off his arms, and cursed 
loudly. Then I saw my brother slump to the ground, next to my hus- 
band. He and my husband lay on the ground, head to head. Blood 
oozed out of their chests. Under the bright sunshine, their faces looked 
calm, as if they were whispering to each other. Two militiamen grabbed 
my hair and made sure that I saw the whole process. I tried to close my 
eyes. But my torturer propped my eyes open with his fingers. Tears ran 
down my cheeks. I tried to tell myself to be brave. But I couldn’t. I just 
screamed and then passed out. 

Someone poured cold water on me. I woke up and saw two militia- 
men prodding open the mouths of my husband and my brother with 
knives. So I yelled: What are you trying to do? One guy kicked me and 
said: Shut up. We are going to cut their tongues out. I screamed with 
my hoarse voice. Take my tongue if you want. Please keep their body 
parts intact. One militiaman hit my head with the butt of a rifle and 
knocked me unconscious again. 

liao: Why did the militiamen want to cut out the victims’ tongues? Was 
it some sort of execution ritual? 

zhang: No. I was told later that a leader in our village wanted the 
human tongue to treat his illness. The leader had been bitten on the 
thigh by a dog. The wounded area became infected and wouldn’t heal. 
Local doctors prescribed all sorts of herbal remedies and none of them 
worked. Then a feng shui master recommended cutting human tongues 
into pieces, drying them in the sun, and grinding them into powder to 
spread on the infected areas. The feng shui master said the powder had 
been very effective. 

liao: Did it work? 

zhang: No, it didn’t. He had probably caught rabies, but in those days, 
nobody knew what was going on. There was no Western doctor in the 
village. The tongues didn't heal his wounds. Instead, his health got 
worse. He soon died. The local government held a big memorial service 
and made that bastard a revolutionary martyr. 

After the execution, they dumped the bodies of my husband and 


* 5 ° 

brother at my house. I washed the blood off them and sent one of my 
children to tell my parents in a nearby village. That evening, three of 
my relatives came, took our door off, stacked the bodies on top, and 
carried them to a location up on the mountain. Since it was dark, they 
couldn't see well. They simply dug two shallow holes and buried them 
in a hurry. A couple of days later, when I went up there to check the 
tombs, I saw their bodies had been dug up by wolves. All that was left 
was a pile of bones. 

liao: Can I take a look at the court verdict against your husband and 
your brother? 

zhang: My family never received any court papers. In those days, the 
work team acted like members of the triad. If they decided that some- 
one deserved the death sentence, they simply called a public condem- 
nation meeting and then had the person executed on the spot. Over 
thirty people were killed like that in this region. We never heard about 
things such as court rulings in the 1950s. People’s lives were at the 
mercy of the local officials. 

liao: Those practices were very common in other parts of China too. It 
was a very tragic and brutal era. 

zhang: My family tragedy was far from over. During the next two years, 
I lost more family members — my niece’s husband, who had served 
in the Nationalist government, was also executed. In despair, my 
niece lost her mind and choked her three children to death with ropes. 
She then gulped down two bottles of rat poison and killed herself. 
My husband's second brother, the sheriff, and his two sons were 
shot to death at similar public speak bitterness sessions. My mother 
was branded as the lazy wife of a rich landlord. The militiamen dragged 
her through the street during a parade. Her body couldn’t take the tor- 
ture. She died shortly after. My father was locked up inside a ware- 
house where he was beaten constantly. One day, when the militiamen 
were asleep, he hanged himself from the ceiling with his belt. I had 
a brother who was executed at the age of twenty, a week after he got 


The Yi District Chief 's Wife 

liao: You probably know I also grew up in a landlord's family. My grandpa 
was also badly tortured during the Land Reform movement . . . 

zhang (sobbing): I know we were not alone. Why did the government 
murder so many people? What crimes had we committed to deserve 
this? After all these years, I’m still haunted. In the middle of the night, 
I constantly wake up from nightmares and shake with fear. 

liao: Could you tell me how you managed to survive those horrible 

zhang: Following the execution of my husband and brother, the militia- 
men came again to get me. They locked me up for over forty days. 
Whenever there was a public speak bitterness meeting, the militia- 
men would drag me out in front of the podium, with hands tied 
behind my back and my head down. 1 had to carry a big cardboard 
sign on my neck. The cardboard sign said “Wife of the Evil Land- 
lord. I would be asked to confess the crimes of my husband. 1 was 
an ordinary woman who had spent most of my time at home with 
the kids; how was I supposed to know what crimes my husband had 
committed? I simply read a prepared statement drafted by the work 
team. Also, they confiscated all of my property. They accused me of 
hiding money and dug holes all over the dirt floor of the house to look 
for it. 

While I was away at the detention center, nobody was home taking 
care of my kids. My youngest daughter died of starvation. She was only 
two years old. 

liao: How many children did you have? 

ZHANG: I had seven children, four boys and three daughters. The first 
two were my stepchildren. By the way, I was nineteen years younger 
than my husband. His first wife had died. When the Communists 
came, my elder stepson, Yang Siyuan, had turned nineteen and was a 
student at a county college. After I was detained, the village committee 
accused him of harboring evil intentions of killing Communist soldiers. 
Good heavens! He was a bookish young man too timid to even touch a 
gun, never mind kill people. You know, in those days, there was no way 



for us to defend ourselves. He simply ran off and hid inside the moun- 
tain for two years. My second stepson, Yang Sipu, was barely sixteen. A 
neighbor reported to the authorities that Sipu had written anti-Land 
Reform slogans on the wall of a latrine. Since our neighbor belonged to 
the Poor Peasants Revolutionary Committee, the authority believed 
everything he had said about my son. My poor Sipu was sentenced to 
seven years in jail. 

At the beginning, my two stepsons had taken care of their little 
brothers and sisters, who were between the ages of ten and two. Then, 
after the eldest one escaped and the second one was imprisoned, 
the rest of my kids simply went out begging and searched for food in 
the field or in trash cans. 

My eldest son’s escape made the village committee really mad. The 
village chief sentenced him to death in his absence. He put my stepson 
on the most-wanted list and posted his picture everywhere. He said 
that my stepson had gone up the mountain to join the triad and collab- 
orate with the Nationalist forces in the hope of overthrowing the local 
government. Then the committee vented all their anger at me. It was 
during the rainy season. There was water everywhere. My torturers 
forced me to kneel in a water puddle on broken bricks and pieces of 
charcoal. It felt very painful initially, then both of my knees became 
numb. Look at the scars on my knees now. Even today, 1 still feel the 
pain here. One time, they hung me from the ceiling, pulled my hair, 
and slapped my face with shoes. They even pulled several of my teeth 
out. Can you see? I don't have many left. 

liao: Where did your eldest son go? 

zhang: I thought he had run off to some faraway place. When I was 
released and got home, my third son whispered to me, I know where 
my big brother is hiding. It turned out that my eldest son was hiding 
inside an old vegetable cellar on the other side of the hill, not too far 
from us. He stayed in the cellar during the daytime and came out to 
look for food in the field at night. 

Several months after his disappearance, the momentum for Land 
Reform gradually weakened. The most wanted posters of my son were 
torn down. People seemed to forget about him. The militiamen still 
dragged me to speak bitterness meetings and denounced me for the 


The Yi District Chief 's Wife 

same crimes again and again. I became accustomed to the humilia- 
tion. During the day, my family was ordered to grow buckwheat on a 
small piece of land on the far side of the mountain. So 1 used the 
opportunity to dig a small cellar in the far corner of the field next to a 
big tree. My younger sons and I moved a stone slab on top of the 
entrance, spread a thick layer of soil on top and planted buckwheat 
seeds. When the buckwheat grew out, nobody could tell there was a 
cellar under there. We also planted lots of bamboo nearby and drilled 
holes inside the bamboo trunks so they could all serve as ventilators for 
the cellar. When it was finished, we secretly moved my eldest son in 

liao: That sounds like a pretty risky and complicated project. 

zhang: Well, we had to come up with some clever ideas. Otherwise, we 
wouldnt have survived. Every day, I would strap some extra food, such 
as steamed buckwheat buns, boiled potatoes, or corncobs, on my chil- 
dren s legs. After we got to the field, we would slip the food down 
to him. hor two years, my son almost forgot how the sun rose or set. 
He lived like a worm. The cellar was damp. He got skin sores all over. 
Initially, he wore his clothes. Later on, he didn’t even bother and 
wore nothing. As time went by, he had almost turned into a ghost. 
He had shoulder-length hair. His arms and legs were covered with 
inch-long gray hair, like mildew on a piece of rotten tofu. Once in a 
while, as the buckwheat stalks were waist-deep, I would wait until 
dark. When 1 had made sure nobody was around, I would open up the 
cellar. He would poke his head out. I hugged him and combed his long 
gray hair, which was overrun with lice. Each time I saw him, I would 
burst out crying. He would look around and cover my mouth with his 

He was always hungry for food. Each time, even before I had the 
chance to bring the food out, he would desperately grab my pockets 
and ask for it. Then, he would wolf the potatoes or corn bread down. 
He would always choke. When that happened, he would straighten his 
neck like a snake to allow the food to slip down. Then, after he finished 
all the food, he would jump out of the cellar like a monkey, and plunge 
his head down into an irrigation trench nearby to drink water. One 
time, as he was drinking, he suddenly heard something. He immedi- 



ately jumped right back into the cellar. His hearing was sharp like a 

I never dared to stay with him long for fear that the village militia- 
men could cheqk up on my house at night. Before 1 left, I would whis- 
per to him: Siyuan, Ma needs to go. I will come back later. He would 
nod his head, and whimper: “Ah — ah.” He could hardly talk like a 
human being. After 1 walked out of the buckwheat field, I turned 
around and saw he was still watching me. One day, I waved my hands, 
asking him to go down the cellar. But he mistakenly thought I was giv- 
ing him a “danger” signal. He jumped around and disappeared. He was 
literally like those savage creatures that scientists said they had discov- 
ered in the rain forest here. 

liao: Have you ever seen the famous movie The White-Haired Girl ? As 
you know, in the movie, a poor girl was raped by an evil landlord. Her 
dad was beaten to death because he couldn’t pay back a debt. She ran 
away and ended up living on the mountain like a savage. Over time, 
lack of nutrition turned the girl into a white-haired woman. Eventually, 
Chairman Mao’s army came to her rescue and executed the landlord. 
That propaganda movie motivated generations of Chinese to join Mao's 
revolutionary campaigns against the evil, ruthless landlord class in 
China. He Jingzhi, who wrote the story, was promoted to be the deputy 
director of China’s Propaganda Ministry. Who would have thought that 
your family had the experience in reverse? 

zhang: The movie presented such a warped view of people who owned 
land. In those years, I used to think to myself: As long as the Commu- 
nists were in power, my stepson would never have the chance to see 
the light of the day. 

liao: Did your stepson get caught? 

zhang: By the fall of 1954, my stepson had stayed inside the cellar for 
over two years. My third son had turned twelve. He was very close 
to his eldest stepbrother and would constantly sneak up to the field 
to meet him. At the beginning, their meetings would last a couple 
of hours. Then, gradually, he started to visit often and stay there longer. 
I became really worried. I tried to discourage my third son from 


The Yi District Chief's Wife 

going there too often. I said it would mean death if his brother was 
discovered. He promised that he would not visit again. But, when 
I wasn't home, he continued with his secret visits. It was harvest- 
time. Everyone was busy in the field. The militiamen somewhat 
relaxed their control over their class enemies. Because of that, I 
became a little complacent and didn’t monitor my third son as closely 
as I should have. 

That little devil also became bold. In late October, he stayed with 
his stepbrother for over three weeks. 1 was worried to death and went 
up there to bring him home, but he didn’t want to leave. My stepson 
begged me: Please let him stay with me for a couple of more days. If it 
hadn t been for my little brother, I wouldn’t know how to speak any- 
more. I will try to teach my little brother how to read and write here. 
He is a very smart kid. I sighed and thought to myself: My third son 
had been deprived of fatherly love at a young age. His eldest brother 
was like a father. II he wanted to be close to Siyuan, how could I be so 
cruel? So I yielded to their wish. 

For the next week, several of my kids took turns smuggling food up 
to the mountain. Then, in the evenings, I started to have nightmares of 
the blood-tainted bodies of my husband and brother again. I woke up 
many times in a cold sweat. I sensed that something ominous was 
going to happen. My premonition was right. Two days later, two village 
militiamen showed up at my door for a regular inspection. One guy 
noticed the absence of my third son and questioned me. I lied and said 
he had gone to visit a relative in the morning. 

He slapped me hard on the face: You sneaky wife of a landlord. 
Why didn t you report to us? Which relative did he go visit? He must 
have gone to carry out counterrevolutionary activities. 

The village immediately reported the information about my missing 
son to the county. Officials there issued an order to put my family 
under the supervision of my revolutionary neighbors. During the day 
two people followed me to the field, and at night they tied me and my 
kids together with a long rope in one bed. So there was no way we 
could go see and deliver food to the two brothers. 

Later on, my eldest son told me that they had waited for four 
days, without anything to eat and drink. They knew something 
had gone wrong and didn't dare to come out. At one time, they had to 
drink their own urine. On the fifth day, they couldn’t take it anymore. 


They climbed out. Since it was right after harvesttime, all the buck- 
wheat stalks had been burned. There was nowhere to hide. They crept 
around like mice. They got some water from a ditch and dug out 
several big sweet potatoes in a held nearby. They survived on the food 
for a couple of more days. After that, they were made bold by their 
success. They got out again and entered another held to steal sweet 
potatoes. Little did they know the militiamen had posted guards there. 
As the two of them were sitting stark naked, munching on their 
food, the guards jumped out and aimed their guns at them. But my 
stepsons look startled one of the guards. He began to scream, “Ghost, 
ghost!” As the two guards were shaking with fear, my two children 
jumped up and tried to run away. The guards hred shots at them. The 
first bullet hit my stepson’s shoulder and he fell. His younger brother 
was scared and lost control. He threw himself over his elder brother. 
Then my stepson said the militiamen fired the second, third, and 
fourth shots. The bullets hit his younger brother in the back and then 
the head. 

By the time the militiamen realized that they were safe, they 
walked up and saw that my twelve-year-old son’s body had been turned 
into a bloody mess. They pulled my stepson out from underneath the 
body and forced him to carry his brother’s body all the way to the office 
of the village chief. News of my son’s capture spread fast. Soon many 
people got up and crowded around the chief’s courtyard. People 
wanted to get a glimpse of the "savage man.” It was like a circus. They 
dumped my younger son’s body in front of my house. Then they shack- 
led my stepson's legs, tied his arms, and locked him up in the village 

The next day, people around the whole region had heard that a 
counterrevolutionary savage man had been captured. On the third day, 
a countywide public meeting was held. Amid the noises of gongs and 
drums, my stepson was paraded onto the stage. The rest of my family 
was forced to stand next to him. His skin was pale; his long gray hair 
had reached his waist. Several of his teeth were protruding out of his 
mouth. Even his siblings were a little scared and embarrassed by his 
grotesque look. I felt so sorry and sad. People yelled and threw rocks at 
him. Many wanted to get closer to touch him. Since he had been in the 
dark for so long, he wasnt used to the light. He became blind for over 
a week before his eyesight was restored. 


The Yi District Chief's Wife 

liao: I remember you mentioned that your stepson had been sentenced 
to death in his absence. 

zhang: By that time, the Land Reform campaign had pretty much 
ended. I guess the leaders in Beijing must have realized they had killed 
too many people. They ordered village leaders to go easy and reduce 
the number of their random executions. As a result of the relaxed polit- 
ical environment, the village committee resentenced my stepson to life 
imprisonment. He was sent to a prison in the provincial capital of Kun- 
ming. Before he left, I went to see him. He kept telling me: 1 killed my 
brother. I owe my life to my brother. We hugged each other and cried. 
My stepson ended up spending thirty years behind bars. In the early 
1980s, when the government reversed his verdict, he was already in his 
fifties. After his release, he got a job at a machinery factory next to the 

In 1984, my daughter Sixian took a long-distance bus and went to 
Kunming to see her stepbrother. When her brother was taken away, 
Sixian was only a little girl. By the time of their reunion, she was 
already in her mid-thirties and had three kids. Sixian brought her infant 
son with her. Look at this picture. It was taken the second day after my 
two children got together. He was still wearing his work overalls, and 
carried his little nephew. He was smiling. It was so rare to see him 

Before my stepson ran off to hide in the cellar, he had a girlfriend. 
Actually, they had gotten engaged a year before. That poor girl never 
married anyone else. After my stepson was released, she officially moved 
in with him and they lived together for another twenty years. They 
never had any kids. Three years ago, my stepson died of kidney failure. 
My daughter-in-law moved back home with us. She doesn’t want to 
talk to anyone about her past or her late husband. 

liao: How do you feel about all this now? 

zhang: After so many deaths and so much suffering, my heart has 
become numb. I can t believe how I have managed to live to be eighty- 
four. Fhats quite a miracle. I guess the suffering has made my body 
and mind tougher. During the past fifty-some years, I was implicated in 
countless political campaigns. They put me through all sorts of tor- 


tures. I thought of killing myself many times. I hated myself for bring- 
ing disasters on my children. As you know, because of me and my fam- 
ily, my children were not able to finish high school. They were denied 
job opportunities in the city. I grew up in a family with generations of 
educated people. We had a glorious family history. I used to keep a 
record of my family history. The Poor Peasants Revolutionary Commit- 
tee dug it out and burned it. My house was so thoroughly searched that 
there was no place for a mouse to hide. 

liao: Do you harbor hatred against those who tortured you in the past? 

zhang: I know the Land Reform was an inevitable trend of the time and 
there was no way for ordinary people to avoid it. 1 don't blame anyone. 
Of course, I dare not blame the Party and Chairman Mao. Even though 
the government has never officially apologized or reversed their verdict 
against my family, I'm trying to make peace with the past. By the way, I 
have been converted into a Christian. I found comfort in God. God has 
taught us forgiveness. Right now, fortune has started to smile on my 
family again. My children didn't get to receive formal education. But 
my grandchildren have turned things around. Several of them have 
been able to attend universities since Deng Xiaoping came to power. 
Three of them are now in Kunming and have gotten good jobs. Two 
came back and have taken up important positions in the county. Those 
two are now famous in the region for being intelligent and capable, just 
like their grandparents in the past. The descendants of my torturers 
constantly come to visit me with gifts and flattering words. Rather than 
calling me the wife of the evil landlord," they now address me as “the 
Respectable Grandma." One guy was here last week and kept calling 
me grandma. He said: Grandma, you have good karma and enjoy such 
longevity. I almost puked. This guy’s grandmother used to beat me up. 
But unfortunately, she died during the famine of the 1960s. For some 
reason, that made me feel really sad. That poor woman! She was five 
years younger than me. 

liao: Do you think those who persecuted you in the past will tell their 
children about the past? 

zhang: I doubt it. Do you think murderers would brag to their children 
about their heroic past? Even the Communist Party now seldom 

1 59 

The Yi District Chief's Wife 

mentions its past and encourages people to move forward. We are mov- 
ing forward. Last year, one of my grandchildren, the one who is a senior 
government official here, held a banquet in the dilapidated courtyard 
of my old house. We prepared over ten tables and invited all the former 
landlords who had shared a similar fate. The majority of them had 
passed away. Their descendants came. We also invited some former 
revolutionaries who showed great humanity during the many political 
campaigns. I specifically asked my daughter to invite our former tenant 
and helper, Mr. Sun, to sit at the head table, next to me. During the 
Land Reform campaign, the work team members repeatedly told him 
to denounce us publicly and beat us. But he just sat there, refusing 
orders. He was persecuted for not drawing a clear line against the land- 
lord class. On that day, I personally thanked him in front of everyone, 
and kept putting food on his plate. I told my grandchildren to take 
care of his family and donate money to support his granddaughter’s 

That banquet became the topic of the village. Many people weren’t 
invited. They simply watched on the side. The younger generation had 
no idea what that meant. But the older ones certainly knew. We even lit 
firecrackers and prayed for good luck. We used the occasion to claim 
our family name back and to appease the sad spirits of my murdered 
relatives. After the banquet, 1 called my college-educated grandchil- 
dren together and asked: Was it too showy? They said, There is no need 
to worry, Grandma. Let bygones be bygones. Our family has finally 
seen a new day. 


Sixty-nine-year-old Huang Zhiyuan was a friend of my father's. 
He grew up in Chengdu, and left home in 1965 for a teaching 
job at a small village in the mountainous region of Yanting 
County. In 1984, he became tired of the tough rural life, quit 
his job, and moved his whole family back to Chendgu. Without 
a hukou, or a city residential permit, he had a hard time finding 
a regular job and lived in constant fear of being caught by 
police. In recent years, as the government gradually phases out 
the hukou system, Huang's life is changing for the better. He 
now owns a grocery store and the business is doing fairly well. 
He visited my family recently. I asked him about his former life 
as a village schoolteacher. 

LIAO YIWU: How did you end up teaching at a rural school far away from 

HUANG ZHIYUAN: 1 entered college in 1961 and graduated in 1965, right 
before the Cultural Revolution. At that time, we were not allowed to 
choose our future jobs. The decision was made by the university. Since 
my family ran a small business before the Communist takeover and we 
were not classifed as the proletariat, I wasn’t eligible for a work assign- 
ment in provincial government or large state enterprises based in the 
city. Young people in that era were quite gullible and obedient, espe- 
cially those of us with questionable family backgrounds. When I heard 
that the Party entrusted me with the task of using my knowledge and 
skills to help make a difference in the poor countryside, I accepted 
with gratitude. I saw my new job assignment as a chance to redeem 
and cleanse my tainted family history. At the graduation ceremony, 1 
said in a speech that if the Party wanted me to block enemy gunfire 
with my body, I would dash forward without hesitation. [ ust to show 
you how fanatical we were. 

The Village Teacher 161 

liao: Your remarks certainly echoed young people’s ideals of that era. By 
the way, as a city guy, it must have been quite a challenge to settle in 

huang: At the beginning, I was quite excited. I felt like I was starting a 
new chapter in life. My destination was Shanya High School, which 
was affiliated with Shanya People’s Commune in Yanting. So I bid 
goodbye to my parents, tucked my graduation speech inside the breast 
pocket of my Mao jacket, and boarded a long-distance bus with two 
classmates of mine. 

About seven hours later, I woke up from a nap and began to see 
totally different scenery. The bus bounced along on the rutted country 
road. I had never seen such a shabby road before. It was like in a World 
War II movie. Around dusk, the bus broke down. The driver got off and 
checked the engine. He couldn't fix it. So he sent a fellow passenger 
who was from that area to inform the commune leaders that some city 
students had arrived. The guy literally ran for over fifteen kilometers to 
relay the message. About two hours later, a tractor rumbled into our 
view. It had been sent by the county government. We anxiously jumped 
on with our luggage. As the tractor lurched forward, I could see the 
steep cliffs hanging over our head. The lonely moon was high up in the 
sky. Occasionally, we would encounter a huge piece of rock sticking 
out, blocking half of the road. The tractor would slow down and scrape 
past it carefully. Thank heavens, the commune was not too far. Other- 
wise, I would have suffered a heart attack before I got there. 

After the tractor dropped us off near the center of the Shanya 
Commune, we suddenly found ourselves alone. It was pitch-dark. 
Electricity was still an inaccessible modern luxury. Mr. Wang, who 
came to pick us up, said people still used kerosene lamps. There was 
but one street, with shops on both sides. In the distance, we could 
see flickering lights coming from one shop. We were told it was the 
local blacksmiths. The occasional banging and clanking from the shop 
made the surrounding area seem eerily quiet. It was like walking on 
the moon. 

Like a tour guide, Mr. Wang began to tell us stories about the 
blacksmiths shop. It was originally a Buddhist temple. Next to the 
temple was a small hill of rocks. A statue of the Buddha sat on the top. 
The statue was about eight stories high. For the past hundred years, 


worshippers had flocked in from hundreds of kilometers away to pay 
tribute. The village of Shanya was built around that temple. Gradually, 
as the population grew, the village expanded into a township. After the 
Communist takeover in 1949, local officials called on people to elimi- 
nate any superstitious or religious practices. They converted the tem- 
ple into a blacksmith's shop. At the time when we arrived, the statue of 
Buddha was completely neglected, but the temple, or the blacksmith's 
shop, had become quite busy and prosperous. During planting and har- 
vesting season, the shop would stay open until midnight. Farm tools 
that needed to be fixed piled up like a small hill. 

Anyhow, after we passed the blacksmith’s shop, we were right there 
in front of the commune office compound. The Shanya Commune 
Party secretary came out to greet us and welcomed us into the com- 
mune. One official brought out the kerosene and gas lamps, and within 
minutes, the conference room was brightly lit. Then the cook came in, 
carrying our dinners on a huge tray — two plates of sweet potatoes and 
five huge porcelain bowls filled to the brim with corn porridge. Pickled 
vegetables floated on the top. 

The Party secretary raved about the food, which featured three 
treasures of Shanya: corn, pickled vegetables, and sweet potatoes. The 
sweet potato, normally stored in a cellar, was the local staple food for 
half of the year. Since sweet potatoes can cause heartburn, locals ate 
them with pickled vegetables; pickled Napa cabbage and bok choy bal- 
ance the unpleasant effect of the potatoes. Later on, I found out that 
Yanting tops the nation in the number of stomach cancer cases. Med- 
ical experts believe it is directly linked to the traditional diet of sweet 
potatoes and pickled vegetables. 

liao: On the night of your arrival, the local folks were really genuine 
and nice. 

huang: They were flattered by the fact that urban youths were willing to 
work in isolated areas like theirs. Before we left for the school, the 
Party secretary said: The mountains are high over here. Life is tough. 
Changing the world is not as easy as scenes in a movie. Please be pre- 
pared to bear hardship. 

liao: How was the school over there? 

The Village Teacher 163 

huang: It wasn’t bad. We had more than thirty teachers and half of 
them had college degrees. We even had veteran teachers who had 
taught in colleges for many years. They were sent down there in the 
late 1950s because they had been convicted as Rightists. Despite the 
fact that we were all graduates of top universities in China, no one 
complained or felt that we were overqualified to teach at a poor rural 
school. People were truly passionate about building a new Communist 

The Shanya H igh School was started by a local scholar at the end of 
the Qing dynasty, around 1910. The classroom building and the audito- 
rium took on some of the Western architectural styles. The courtyard 
houses, which served as dorms for both students and teachers, were 
built in a traditional Chinese manner with arched eaves. The buildings 
survived the war against Japan and the civil war against the National- 
ists. Not far from the school was a pond with tranquil green water. The 
pond was hemmed in by mountains and was used for irrigation and 
as an outdoor swimming pool. There was a big orchard next to the 
school. The commune put the orchard under the jurisdiction of the 
school principal, who instructed students and teachers to work on fruit 
trees in their spare time. 

liao: You started teaching at the time of the Cultural Revolution, when 
students in cities were busier beating up their teachers than learning 
science and history. What about Shanya? 

huang: Chairman Mao did a great job in spreading the revolution. We 
were soon caught up in the movement. Initially, I was asked to teach 
Chinese and math. Soon, all that was permitted to be taught was the 
chairmans Little Red Book. Chairman Mao’s quotes were treated like 
the words ot God. We had to read them three times a day and check 
out our daily behavior against his teachings. Unfortunately, his quotes 
were not enough to empower the students to solve problems in math, 
chemistry, or physics. But nobody dared to say anything. I knew a 
teacher who specialized in Chinese literature. He liked to teach a clas- 
sic essay, The Admiring Qualities of a Pine Tree, written by a well- 
known Chinese general. However, when that general lost favor with 
Mao, that teacher was labeled a counterrevolutionary. 

You probably remember a movie released in 1975 about a Maoist 


agricultural university. There was a scene relating to students taking a 
college entrance exam. A student applicant, who was an illiterate 
blacksmith, failed the exams. But a Communist official examined the 
hands of the blacksmith and said: These are the hands of a proletariat. 
The calluses on his hands are enough to make him a qualified candi- 
date for the university. Of course, the student was admitted. That 
movie triggered strong reaction from students in my school. Many 
believed that they no longer needed to study tor college. For farm kids, 
working and playing in the field was more fun than learning math and 

The headmaster, who was raised in a farmer’s family, was a practical 
man. With the revolution going on, he was very glad to change the cur- 
riculum, half a day learning Chairman Mao’s teachings in classrooms 
and the other half farming in the field, where he took the lead by carry- 
ing buckets of manure on shoulder poles to the field. Students and 
teachers all followed his example. During the harvesting season, stu- 
dents worked in the field full-time. 

The playground in front of the classroom building was turned into 
a big grinding platform, with horses and donkeys pulling rolling stones 
to grind and help separate the wheat from the husks. Peasants even 
moved their windmills over. It was quite a scene. If students were plan- 
ning a basketball or football match, they had to coordinate with the 
production team beforehand. 

Anyway, of my twenty years of service there, only five were spent in 
actual teaching. We didn’t start our regular curricula until the late 
1 970s, when Deng Xiaoping came to power. The nationwide college 
entrance exam was resumed. Initially, a teacher had to teach all sub- 
jects. Later on, when the government required all schools to follow a 
more challenging curriculum, the school decided to divide the teachers 
into various groups based on their expertise. I began to focus on 

liao: At the onset of the Cultural Revolution, many urban students 
formed all sorts of Red Guard organizations and rebelled against 
authorities. What was it like in Shanya? 

huang: It was the same as everywhere else. Students at Shanya High 
School were divided into two groups: the Young Rebels and the Old 

The Village Teacher 165 

Loyalists. Both claimed they were the real defenders of Chairman 
Mao. The only difference is that the Old Loyalists group also defended 
the commune leadership, whereas the Young Rebels wanted to kick 
the leaders out of the office. The two groups engaged in serious armed 
conflict. The peasants also established their own revolutionary orga- 
nization, the Red Brigade of Revolutionary Peasants. The peasants’ 
group was more practical. They sided with the Old Loyalist faction 
and wanted some order. As a result, peasants also got into fights 
with the Young Rebels group. One day, the Young Rebels blew whistles 
and gathered everyone on the playground, announcing their decision 
to ban peasants from using the school playground to grind “capital- 
istic grain. The students claimed that the playground was the place 
for Red Guards to conduct revolutionary military exercises. They also 
prohibited the use of the auditorium as a grain warehouse, saying 
that the auditorium was the hall for people to practice the revolution- 
ary dances, not to store corn and wheat. Those decisions were devas- 
tating to the peasants. Thousands of them got together and staged a 
demonstration in front of the school. They uttered their angry-curses 
and surrounded the school for several days. The students clutched 
Chairman Maos Little Red Book to their hearts, and sang, nonstop, 
revolutionary songs such as “It Is Heroic to Make Sacrifices” or “If 
Necessary, We 11 Call on the Sun and the Moon to Make a Better 

I have to say that folks in the countryside were honest and simple 
people. They had no intention of hurting the students. Meanwhile, 
those students, who were articulate and literate, used quotes from 
Chairman Mao to engage in verbal war. Peasants were not their match 
at all, but they didnt want to give in. The confrontation lasted several 
days. Eventually, the commune government, with leaders installed by 
the Young Rebels, intervened. They dispatched two special representa- 
tives to the commune and issued an order to the peasants: If you dare 
to attack those young revolutionary rebels, all of you will be labeled as 
counterrevolutionaries. With those threats from the commune, the 
peasants gradually dispersed like defeated dogs. 

liao: Even though your school was so far away from the political cen- 
ters, you certainly didn't miss any of the “fun” from the Cultural 


huang: One might think isolated regions like Shanya could be spared. 
It was equally bad. Remember the famous statue of the Buddha I men- 
tioned earlier? The Red Guards blew the statue into pieces with dyna- 
mite. Villagers were really scared, believing that disasters were going to 
befall them. But two years had passed and nothing happened. On the 
contrary, the blacksmith’s shop, which had been converted from a tem- 
ple, became so prosperous that it expanded into a farm equipment fac- 
tory, employing ten blacksmiths. In 1968, when the Young Rebels group 
was locked in a fight with the local peasants, the blacksmiths sided 
with the peasants and supported the old commune leadership. The 
Young Rebels called the farm equipment factory a counterrevolution- 
ary citadel. They would organize a huge rally once a week in front of 
the factory entrance, singing revolutionary songs and shouting slogans. 
The blacksmiths would stop what they were doing, line up near the 
factory gate, and stare at those Red Guards with hostility. Their dark, 
shiny, and bare-muscled arms and the hammers in their hands were 
quite intimidating. 

To the students, the blacksmiths were scarier than those legendary 
man-eating monsters in old Chinese horror stories. Not long after the 
peasant-Red Guard conflict started, the head of the Young Rebels, Red 
Plum Zhang, disappeared without a trace. Students suspected that 
those blacksmiths had murdered her. Several hundred Red Guards 
showed up at the factory demanding answers. Some were even armed 
with guns that they had obtained from the County Public Security 
Bureau. They surrounded the factory for half a day. The blacksmiths 
were really mad. They dashed out of the wrought-iron gate and swung 
their hammers at the Red Guards. Many were hurt. A couple of guys 
were hit on the head and blood spewed out. It was horrible. Out of des- 
peration, the Red Guards, who outnumbered the blacksmiths, fired 
several shots to the sky to scare the blacksmiths. They eventually got 
into the factory and destroyed many machines. One Red Guard shot at 
a blacksmith and blew one of his ears off. In the end, the Red Guards 
never found Zhang, nor could they find any evidence against the black- 

liao: What happened to the commune Party secretary? 

huang: Our Party secretary was a nice and honest man. That was the 
reason why the peasants and blacksmiths had defended and protected 

The Village Teacher 167 

him. He came from a family with three generations of blacksmiths. 
Even after he was promoted to be the commune Party secretary, he 
would still sneak back into the farm equipment factory now and then, 
and pick up his old trade. Soon after we met him, he was labeled a 
capitalist road taker and was publicly humiliated and denounced. 
One day, the blacksmiths snatched him away from a public denuncia- 
tion meeting. They hid him inside the factory for over two years. Even- 
tually, when the Red Guards took over the factory, they captured him, 
moved him to our school campus, and locked him up in the same room 
as the former school principal. Every day, he and other deposed leaders 
were forced to run barefoot on the school playground in rain or snow. 
While they were running, their captors would order them to shout slo- 
gans or randomly ask them to stop, or run faster, without any warning. 
Many of them ended up falling head over heels, and had bruises all 
over their bodies. One day, the Party secretary couldn’t take the torture 
anymore. He threw a blacksmith’s temper tantrum and resisted orders 
from the Red Guards. The poor guy was beaten up so severely that he 
became incontinent. The Red Guards still wouldn’t let up. Every 
morning, they would grab him and drag him all the way to a statue of 
Chairman Mao,' forcing him to confess to Mao about his “crimes.” He 
refused to talk and, later, he bit off the tip of his tongue. He died a cou- 
ple of months later. 

There were many sad stories like these. Many years after his death, 
I still remember vividly how he was the night when 1 arrived in Shanya: 
his hair was parted on the side, and he looked like those warm and car- 
ing Communist characters in old Chinese movies. 

In 1969, as chaos began to spread all over China, the central gov- 
ernment issued another edict, calling on all Red Guard factions to 
unite and form revolutionary alliances. The famous quote from Mao at 
that time was “Learn from workers and peasants.” With that mantra, 
workers and peasants entered schools and began to help manage the 
students. Let me tell you, the wind suddenly changed. In Shanya, Red 
Guard leaders were denounced as gangsters. They were paraded 
around the commune and humiliated in public meetings. With their 
leaders gone, the students were easily put under control and their arro- 
gance evaporated. The campus was once again in the hands of local 
peasants. The playground soon became the harvesting backyard. Sev- 
eral classrooms were turned into pens for pigs or chickens. When 
school started in the fall, no student registered. Not surprisingly, the 


1 68 

peasants, who were given the authority to run our school, encouraged 
students to do more farmwork. If any faculty ignored their instructions, 
the peasants would knock on their doors and insist on talking with them 
until they agreed to obey orders. 

liao: You have told me a lot about the Cultural Revolution. How hard 
was it for you to live there? 

huang: It was tough. In the sixties and seventies, hunger was a daily 

We were put on a ration system. Every adult was given 13.5 kilo- 
grams of food per month. It was certainly not enough. To improve the 
nutritional intake, many of us would get up at midnight to catch frogs 
in the rice paddies, and boil them. They tasted really fresh. 

Many of my students lived on campus because their villages were 
pretty far away. They brought food from home. The staple food was 
normally rice with vegetable soup, without meat at all. As a result, 
many students suffered from malnutrition. 

Luckily, there was a cook for teachers. He cooked awful food. 
Nobody dared to complain because asking for nicely prepared food was 
not a revolutionary thing to do. Once a week, we could have meat. On 
Sundays, before dinner, a crowd would gather outside the canteen. 
Bowls were laid out on the big table and everyone would wait for the 
cook to dish out the meat. When he did it, all eyes would be focused on 
the ladle. If someone lingered a little longer, hoping to get some extra 
morsels, others would immediately boo him away. After getting our 
share, we would instinctively turn the meat pieces around as if to make 
sure they were real. Then we would carefully bite a small piece at a 
time so it could last a little longer. 

Because of the gnawing hunger, I developed such an obsession 
with food. I met my wife because of food. She was brought up in the 
local village there and used to work in the noodle shop. Each time I 
went to buy noodles, she would sneak some extra into my bowl. Her 
bribes really worked. Soon we started dating and then we got married. 
After the marriage, she began to complain about my food obsession 
and even my eating habits. She complained that I made too much 
noise when slurping on noodles. She would say, People can hear you a 
kilometer away. 

The Village Teacher 169 

liao: You were a college graduate and she was an uneducated country 
girl. How did you end up with her? 

HUANG: In those days, college graduates or intellectuals were trampled 
down as stinky bourgeois. Many people tried to stay away from me for 
fear of getting into political trouble. I was in my thirties and no girl 
wanted me. By contrast, she was a well-known beauty in the village 
and was not short of suitors. We dated secretly for over a year before we 
made it public. When her dad found out about our relationship, he 
strongly objected to it. He said his daughter was like a rose planted in 
the cows dung. But like the old saying goes: “People with the same 
stomach make good husbands and wives.” 

liao: Why did you leave Shanya? 

huang: The older 1 got, the more homesick I became. So in 1984, after 
twenty years of teaching in Shanya, I quit my job and came home. I 
was forty-five at that time. Because of my resignation, I lost my govern- 
ment pension. When I returned to Chengdu, I found myself without a 
city hnkou; no government agency or schools could hire me. So I 
became an illegal resident for many years. I took on odd hard-labor jobs 
to make ends meet. 1 worked as a porter for at least five years. Then, I 
drove a flatbed tricycle. 

The ones who really suffered were my wife and two kids. My kids 
couldn't enter any schools. My wife had to pick up some odd jobs. The 
most unbearable thing is that police constantly visited homes to check 
on people’s hukou. We constantly had to be on the run. It's ironic that 
this is the city of my birth and I wound up being an illegal alien. 

liao: Have you read the novels by Li Rui, a writer in Shanxi Province? 
Peasants in Lis novels love and worship the land they grow up on. 
Despite the extreme poverty, they choose to stay and make changes 

huang: That was pure propaganda crap. In every regime or dynasty, 
there are writers who like to fabricate stories to ingratiate themselves 
with the rulers. Since peasants seldom read novels, whatever you write 
about them, they won’t know. 



China’s remote mountainous regions are hopeless. No matter how 
much money you invest there, the returns become as intangible as 
moonlight in water. In many areas, where trees have been cut, the 
water has become polluted and undrinkable. Under Mao, you couldn’t 
go anywhere without a residential permit. So people were tied to their 
land, poor and ignorant. Under Deng Xiaoping, the rules are becoming 
flexible. Those muddy-legged peasants are running faster than us. 
They go to faraway places in droves to search for better opportunities. 
Look at Chengdu — there are so many migrant workers. 1 have bumped 
into a couple of my former students from Shanya. Some of them are 
running businesses; others are working at odd jobs. No matter what 
they do and how well they do, they share one common aspiration: to 
get the hell out of the countryside. 

Speaking of my former students, let me tell you a story. One day, 
when I was driving my flatbed tricycle near the Mozi Bridge area, I ran 
into the city police. They cornered me and confiscated my tricycle 
because I didn t have a permit. I squatted by the side of the road in 
complete despair. At that moment, someone tapped me on the shoul- 
der. I turned around, and saw a chunky young man who addressed me 
as “Teacher Huang." I had long forgotten that I had been a teacher. I 
had no idea who he was. 

The chunky guy pulled me into a nightclub nearby. When we 
started talking, I realized that he was the second son of the commune 
Party secretary in Shanya. I had been his head teacher for three years. 
He graduated from junior high in 1980 and was transferred to a differ- 
ent school. He gave me his business card. It said he was a nightclub 

The Party secretary's son became nostalgic about the past. He 
invited me for a couple of drinks and then called his contact at the 
police station, asking the police to return the confiscated tricycle. That 
guy certainly had lots of connections. He could drink, too. Not long 
after we started, he downed a bottle of red wine and was a little tipsy. 
He offered to get me a girl for what he called “entertainment. That 
almost scared the hell out of me. He said to me: Teacher Huang, you 
are a city guy and my dad was a country bumpkin. Both of you ended 
up with a similar fate: he was killed by the Red Guards and you ended 
up on the street. Life is so unfair. As your former student, 1 have to 
show you how to enjoy life. 

The Village Teacher 171 

I shook my head hard and told him that in China, we teachers keep 
our dignity. \ou students should respect teachers. How could you pull 
your teacher into a muddy hole like this? He laughed. You were my 
teacher in school. Outside school, we are friends. Do you remember 
that you used to offer me all sorts of special treatment? After my dad 
died, you always let me use your office to do my homework and you 
shared food with me. It’s time for me to pay you back today. I said, I 
understand your kindness, but moral values are important to me. Your 
father's spirit would agree that — He burst out laughing and inter- 
rupted me: Forget about my father. When a person dies, he is like a 
flame that has been put out. Before 1 even had the chance to argue, 
two young women came up to me, snuggled against me, and offered 
me a drink. I became so embarrassed that this old face of mine began 
to blush. When my former student saw my awkwardness, he got up 
and said: lake your time. I will go get you a prettier one. I want to 
change the outlook of your generation. 

When I finally got rid of the two women and left the room, I saw a 
crowd gathering at the other end of the corridor, blocking the passage- 
way. 1 managed to squeeze to the front and found that my former stu- 
dent was beating up a young woman. He grabbed her hair, punched 
her, and kicked her with his feet and knees. The woman curled up in a 
fetal position, her body shaking and her face bleeding. Several onlook- 
ers tried to stop my former student, but he had the genes of a black- 
smith and nobody could subdue him. Sensing that he could kill her, I 
went up and tried to stop him. But I ended up getting punched in the 

When he saw the blood coming out of my nose, my former student 
began to realize that he had hit the wrong person. Sobriety returned 
somewhat. He explained to me: When I asked this bitch to service you, 
she thought you are too old for her. No shit. She has slept with hun- 
dreds of men and she still thinks she has a fresh pussy. 1 couldn’t bear 
to hear him talk like that and left right away 

Later on, 1 didn t even go ask for my tricycle, for fear that the Party 
secretary s son could find me. One day, I was reading the Huaxi 
Metropolis Daily and found a report in the social news section about 
how my former student had been charged with beating up a young 
woman and forcing her into prostitution. When he was interviewed in 
the detention center, he was quoted as saying: My former teacher took 



care of me when I was kid. Now it’s time to pay him back. I don’t regret 
staying at the detention center because I did it for him. 

liao: I have never seen such a loyal student as him. 

huang: If his father knew about this, he would be turning over in his 

liao: Have you been back to that school? 

huang: No. I heard that the Shanya High School has been closed. The 
classroom buildings have been demolished and the playground is piled 
with dirt. The school is now turned into farmland. My guess is that the 
school lacked financial resources and couldn’t get qualified teachers to 
work there. Times have changed. College graduates are no longer as 
idealistic as we were. They are all looking for high-paying jobs with 
international companies. Sometimes, I don't know who is right, Old 
Mao or Old Deng. Is it good to open China’s door to the West or is it 
good to keep it shut? 


There is a funeral home on Chengdu 's Qunzhong Road. Next 
to the funeral home is a big teahouse, with a run-down facade. 
The business at the teahouse is fairly good. About 80 percent of 
its clients are senior citizens. It was inside the teahouse that I 
recently met the seventy-one-year-old Zhang Daoling, a senior 
mortician at the funeral home. 

liao yiwu: Master Zhang, how long have you been in this business? 

ZHANG DAOLING: Over forty years. I'm about to retire. I was one of 
founding members of this funeral home. I started out here in 1957, 
when I graduated from the local art school. It was the time of the anti- 
Rightist campaign. Many educated folks had been purged for speaking 
out against the Communist Party. So people were quite nervous. When 
my school assigned me this job, I took it right away. If I had refused, I 
would have easily been labeled a Rightist for disobeying Party orders. 
When I first started out here, we had about ten staff members. In those 
days, people seldom used funeral homes. All burial services and rituals 
were conducted in their own private homes or villages. Most of the 
dead people were sent to our funeral home by police who had picked 
them up on the street. They were either murder victims or people 
killed in traffic accidents. Starting in the mid-iq^os. Chairman IVIao 
and other senior Chinese leaders began to encourage citizens to 
change the traditional practice of burial to cremation because there 
was simply not enough space for cemeteries. Our funeral home added 
the cremation service. But the concept of cremation was something 
that people found hard to accept. As a result, we didn’t have much to 
do at work. My supervisor assigned me the job of designing a bulletin 
board to publicize Chairman Mao’s political teachings. As you know, 
the Party was launching one political campaign after another. Lots of 
propaganda materials came in. I had to read them and then publicize 
them via the bulletin board. 



liao: I assume the extra assignment kept you fairly busy. 

zhang: Yes. Following the anti-Rightist campaign in 1957, Chairman 
Mao launched the Great Leap Forward movement in 1958. In this 
neighborhood, some young people stormed into the funeral home, urg- 
ing us to convert the cremation furnace into one that could produce 
iron and steel. Their reason was that we didn't use the furnace that 
much and that we needed to make contributions to Chairman Maos 
great plan. The funeral home director tried to explain to them that the 
two types of furnaces were designed differently. The neighbors didn’t 
believe a word he said. They claimed that if a furnace had the capabil- 
ity to cremate a human body, it could be easily converted into one that 
could melt scraps of metal. When the funeral director refused their 
demand, they turned him over to the police and had him arrested for 
obstructing Mao’s Great Leap Forward. After our director was taken 
away, the neighbors moved chunks of ore and coal into the courtyard. 
Luckily, the county chief heard about it; he rushed over and stopped 
the mob from destroying the furnace. As a compromise, the county 
chief allowed the neighbors to build a new furnace in our courtyard. As' 
you can imagine, the quiet and spooky funeral home was turned into a 
mini smoke-filled noisy factory. I was quite caught up in the move- 
ment. I rushed in and out of the funeral home like crazy, collecting 
every piece of metal I could find from bicycles to cooking utensils. I 
had almost forgotten that my real job was as a beautician at the funeral 
home. Oh well, in the next few months, we produced quite a few 
chunks of useless, low-quality iron. It was a total disaster. The only 
good thing that came out of that crazy campaign was that 1 met my cur- 
rent wife. She was in the Communist Youth League and was assigned 
to the funeral home to help out with our steel production. 

liao: When did the funeral business officially take off? 

zhang: It was in the famine of i960. About twenty to thirty thousand 
people died of starvation in this county alone. The large number of 
deaths made it impossible to conduct burial services for each individ- 
ual. People didn’t even have the time and strength to prepare a coffin. 
All they did was to wrap up the dead in a straw mat and dump the bod- 
ies in here for cremation. In the second half of i960, we were so over- 

The Mortician 


whelmed here that I had to work overtime. The furnace operated quite 
differently then. We needed to carry the body and push it into the fur- 
nace. Sometimes, if the power button didn't work as planned, the 
flames would start before we had fully adjusted the body in the fur- 
nace. Often, we would end up having the leftover ashes blown all over 
our faces. We looked like we had just murdered the person. But nowa- 
days everything is automatic. You press a button; the body is sent down 
to the turnace on a conveyor belt. 

liao: 1 thought you were a beautician. Why did you have to arrange the 
actual cremation? 

zhang: All the dead folks sent over to our funeral home were famine 
victims. I heir relatives couldnt afford extra makeup services. Initially, 
we could still do a little something to make them look better. In the 
spring of 1961, food shortages got worse. As more bodies poured in, I 
didn t even have time to do any makeup. In that year, thousands of peo- 
ple roamed the mountain like locusts, desperately searching for things 
that were edible — tree bark, grass roots, wild vegetables, even bugs. 
Unfortunately, all the mountaintops had been deforested to feed the 
furnaces for iron and steel production. There wasn t much available 
for people to eat. While walking around to look for food, many peo- 
ple simply dropped dead. The public security guards would force the 
prisoners — former landlords, rich peasants, Rightists — to climb up 
the mountain and pick up dead bodies. Those poor prisoners were also 
hungry. They staged a strike. If they didn't get a steamed wheat bun, 
they refused to go. When the guards punched them with the butts of 
their guns, the prisoners still wouldn't budge. Then the county sheriff 
came up with an innovative body-collecting idea. He used a long rope, 
tying several dead bodies together and then had some young people 
drag them down from the mountain. It did save us a lot of energy. 

liao: Were you affected by the famine? 

zhang: Luckily, state employees were guaranteed a fixed monthly ration 
of food. Since the funeral home played an important role in preventing 
the spread of disease caused by dead bodies, the county government 
made sure that the furnace ran properly and employees were fed. At 



the beginning of 1962, signs of cannibalism appeared. The bodies 
brought back from the mountain were mostly dismembered. The flesh 
around the thighs, the shoulders, the backs, and the buttocks was all 
gone. Local government leaders ordered us to keep quiet and get rid of 
the bodies right away. The public security officials patrolled the moun- 
tains at night, ambushed a couple of cannibals, and sent them to jail. 
Do you know why they wanted to eat human flesh? Many people were 
suffering from constipation after swallowing a combination of wild 
grass and white clay to appease the gnawing hunger. Their stomachs 
became very bloated. Then some herbal doctors told them that human 
flesh was an effective laxative. They wanted the relief badly. 

liao: I remember the famine very clearly. I suffered from edema and 
almost died from it. Let’s switch to another topic. What happened to 
you later? Did you ever switch professions? 

zhang: Nope. After the famine was over, the funeral business went 
back to the normal workload. In subsequent years, burial was banned 
in many places, and more and more people began to accept the prac- 
tice of cremation. As a result, the funeral home was expanded to 
include a special hall for memorial services and a makeup room. 
Makeup procedures varied according to the social status of the dead. 
For government officials or the more educated folks, we were asked to 
do a more elaborate makeover for the wake. For ordinary folks in the 
rural areas, their families didn’t even request a wake or a memorial 
service. All they did was to have a private viewing so relatives could say 
goodbye. In that case, makeup was very simple: I would wash the face 
of the deceased, comb the hair, stuff some cotton into the mouth, and 
apply lipstick and some powder on the cheeks. 

liao: That was it? 

zhang: Yes. Sometimes makeup jobs can be challenging. According to 
Chinese tradition, when a person passes away, the family sets up a 
wake at home, with his or her body on display for three days. On many 
occasions, when the body was brought in for a memorial service and 
cremation, the arms and legs had already become very stiff, the cheeks 
all sunken and the face blue. If the death had occurred in the summer, 
the deceased would start to smell. It took a lot of work to make the 

The Mortician 

1 77 

dead look presentable. The hardest job is to treat violent murder vic- 
tims. It needs skill and patience to make a ghastly looking face into a 
normal smiling one. 

liao: This is a profession for the brave. 

zhang: Cant say I m that brave. In many ways, I'm like a doctor who 
dissects the body. After a while, you just become too desensitized to 
feel anything. Many writers have written spooky ghost stories about the 
mortuary. I have worked here for many years, and have not encoun- 
tered any ghost as described in those hooks. One time, some guys 
played a practical joke on me. In the middle of the night, they removed 
a body that I had worked on and put it against my door. Later on, when 
I got up and opened the door to use the outhouse, that sucker bumped 
right into my face, its mouth hitting mine. It scared the hell out of me. 
Luckily, I soon recognized the body and quickly got myself back 
together again. I held the dead body, slapped its face twice, and carried 
it back to the funeral home. After it was all done, I went back to sleep. 

I didnt really feel anything afterward except my mouth tasted of 
formaldehyde for several days. 

LIAO: When you told the story, my hair almost stood on end. But you 
talked as if this were something funny. 

zhang: I was used to it. During the Cultural Revolution when factions 
of the Red Guards began to engage in gunfights, they made quite a 
mess in the area. Every couple of days, dead bodies wrapped in red 
flags would be wheeled in. The Red Guards would force me at gun- 
point to clean and embalm the bodies of their comrades. When I 
dipped some of the bodies into the sink to wash them, the water would 
immediately turn red. After the wash, I would carefully cover the holes 
and cuts on the bodies with adhesive plasters. Then, I would change 
them into the Red Guard uniforms — green army jacket and red arm- 
bands. One time, a Red Guard leader was stabbed in the heart by his 
opponent. When his comrades brought his body into the mortuary a 
couple days later, his teeth were still clenched, and his eyeballs almost 
bulged through the sockets. In the end, I had to use a pair of pliers to 
pull down his eyelids to cover them. 


liao: Didn't realize you had to use those mechanical tools. 

zhang: We had to. It was quite a challenge to open his mouth. After I 
pried it open with a knife, a bunch of maggots crawled out. It turned 
out that his tongue had rotted. I was so grossed out. I covered my 
mouth and dashed out for some fresh air. A few minutes later, I pulled 
myself together and returned. I brushed his teeth, and pumped bottles 
and bottles of formaldehyde into his stomach. It was like washing a toi- 
let bowl. After I worked on it for a whole afternoon, that angry, dis- 
torted face was finally turned into a friendly one, with the smile that 
everyone remembered. The Red Guards were really touched by my 
work and my perfectionist attitude. They put a Red Guard armband on 
my arm and shouted slogans based on Chairman Mao’s quotes, “Learn 
from the workers and “Serving the people. They even made me an 
honorary member of their group. 

liao: I m very touched too. I assume that the majority of people coming 
to pay tribute to the deceased are overcome with grief. After the 
funeral is over, very few can remember you, a magician who could turn 
a rotten piece of flesh into a miraculously human-looking body. We sel- 
dom read about people like you. 

zhang: Even if journalists write wonderful things about us, people still 
don't want to be in this profession. Last year, I bought a new house and 
moved into a new neighborhood. I was completely cut off from my old 
friends and from things I was familiar with. The only advantage is that 
none of my new neighbors knows what I do. Once my son s girlfriend 
found out about my profession; she vowed never to visit my house 
again. 1 heard that she was so scared that she wouldn’t stop washing 
her hands after shaking hands with me. Luckily, my son was really 
close to me and the incident with his girlfriend didn't affect our rela- 
tionship. After all, whats to be afraid of? Sooner or later, everyone is 
going to die. But when people are alive, I guess they don’t want to be 
reminded of death. I understand that perfectly. When I work on those 
dead bodies, I don't even associate them with death. I block it out of 
my mind completely. It is just a job. 

liao: Does it mean that you have transcended human emotions? 

The Mortician 


zhang. Pretty much. There was only one time that 1 became really emo- 
tionally attached. A little girl was killed in a traffic accident. When they 
brought her to the funeral home, half of her head was gone. I touched 
her hands and arms, and sadness overcame me. After my assistant 
bathed her, I asked to be left alone so 1 could reconstruct her head and 
face. I filled the back of her head with silicone gel, and covered the gel 
with a piece of someone else’s skin that had been soaked in formalde- 
hyde. I carefully washed and combed her hair, braiding it into a thick 
pigtail. After 1 applied some makeup to her face and her lips, I put a 
white dress on her. She looked radiant, with a sweet smile, as if she 
were alive. I specifically put on some French mascara. Her eyes looked 
beautiful. At the memorial service, all the attendees were shocked to 
see the beautiful angel lying there. They cried and took turns hugging 
her. I was observing from the corner. I was secretly praying, hoping her 
parents could allow her to stay in the mortuary one more night so I 
could look at her alone, bringing some flowers or toys to her. But they 
quickly wheeled her into the crematorium after the memorial service. 
All that work lasted for over an hour. Beauty doesn't last. It’s bound to 
be destroyed. 

liao: Dont be too sad, Master Zhang. Beauty leaves its imprints in the 
mind. 1 hroughout history, there have been many beautiful moments 
that can never be recovered, but you and I know that they existed. For 
example, you know about the epic story of Farewell, My Concubine. 
About two thousand years ago, General Xiang Yu s troops were trapped 
by his enemy inside a small southern town. The night before his last 
battle for life, he sat in his camp with his beloved concubine Yu Ji and 
sang: My strength could pull mountains, my spirit could conquer the 
world. Yet so unlucky am I that my horse just refuses to gallop! What 
can I do if my horse denies me even a trot? Oh my dear Yu Ji, what 
would you have me do?” To which Yu Ji replied, after performing a final 
dance in front of him: "The Han have invaded us. Chu’s songs sur- 
round us. My lord’s spirit is depleted. Why then should I still live?” She 
cut her own throat with his sword. Grief-stricken, Xiang Yu fought his 
way to the Wu River. After all his men had fallen, he took his own life. 
People took this tragic story and imbued it with new feeling, imagina- 
tion, and meaning. The concubine, a rare, unimaginable beauty, per- 
ished from the world, just like the little girl you talked about. But her 
story passes on from generation to generation. 


zhang: You writers make things sound so poetic. You have very good 
memories. Even though 1 only understand half of what you just said, I 
know you are complimenting my work. Throughout my career, nobody 
has used those poetic words to praise me. I have spent most of my life 
in that funeral home. What am I going to do after 1 retire? 1 don't know 
how to play cards or chess. I don't like to chat with people. All I know 
about is dead people. 

liao: You can raise a cat or a dog or go fishing. People can have different 

zhang: I’m too afraid to feel attached to anyone or anything. Cats and 
dogs are like human beings. After you live with them long enough, you 
begin to feel attached, and one day, when you have to part with them 
forever, you will feel sad. So many nice people and good-looking people 
die each day. I work on their bodies, hoping to temporarily preserve and 
enhance their beauty before they are gone forever. It’s tough. The scari- 
est part of life is not death, but the loss that comes with death. When I 
look around me, I notice that 1 can't afford to lose stuff anymore. 

My former boss died at the beginning of this year. He was not even 
seventy yet. 1 did the makeup for him. This guy had one hobby when he 
was alive. He collected all sorts of wedding invitations when he was 
young. After he turned fifty, he began to collect obituaries. His whole 
room was filled with his collections. He used to say that all obituaries 
sounded the same and that we Chinese people lack imagination in the 
use of language. 

liao: That was kind of eccentric. 

zhang: Well, he wanted his own obituary to be imaginative and unique. 
So he began to compose his own when he was still alive. He had 
printed a couple hundred copies and stored them in a drawer, along 
with his bank accounts and his will. After he died, his friends located 
those copies and showed one to Old Wang, the new Party secretary at 
the funeral home. Old Wang, who was going to preside over the memo- 
rial service, read it aloud to several people during the rehearsal. 
Nobody could understand what the obituary was about. It was so 

The Mortician 181 

liao: I assume he must have used an ancient style of liturgy. 

zhang: Perhaps. They sounded like haiku. 1 didn't know half of the 
characters. They were handwritten, and I assume that he must have 
read it hundreds of times before he died, hoping those could be the last 
words he left for this world. Unfortunately, the new Party secretary 
didn t think his obituary reflected the revolutionary spirit of the new 
era. So he composed a new one filled with modern political jargon. It 
was written in a style and language that our past director had despised. 
He could be turning over in his grave. Oh well, what can you do? This 
is China. You dont have much control when you are alive. When you 
die, you won’t have control over your own obituary either. 


Since 1954, the government has set u-p a system of neighborhood 
committees on a nationwide basis to extend security and con- 
trol beyond what could he provided by the police. Each com- 
mittee usually consists of between three and seven full-time 
cadres, augmented by unpaid local residents, such as house- 
wives and retirees. Over the past fifty years, neighborhood 
committees have served as a primary means for disseminating 
propaganda, mediating disputes, controlling troublemakers, 
and spying on any possible violations of the government’s one- 
child policies. 

I spent my teenage years in Jinguang District, which is one 
of the oldest slums in Chengdu. Located in a remote corner of 
the city, the area has been overlooked by developers. Old run- 
down apartment buildings are still squatting there, like ugly 
Dumpsters. The seventy-nine-year-old Mi Daxi was my neigh- 
borhood committee director for many years. He was quite an 
idol of mine in my childhood days. 

liao yiwu : I’m looking for Director Mi of the neighborhood committee. 

mi daxi: That’s me. By the way, I’m no longer the director. I’m retired. 
I'm here today to help out my daughter. She is out running some 
errands. What’s your name? Do you have an ID card or a recommenda- 
tion letter from your company? 

liao: Do you recognize me? I used to live on the second floor. I’m the 
son of Teacher Liao. 

ml You have changed a lot. I can hardly recognize you. Where are you 
making the big bucks nowadays? 

The Neighborhood Committee Director 183 

liao: It's very refreshing to hear a diehard Communist like you talk 
about money. 

mi: 1 imes have changed. Everyone talks about money and nobody cares 
about Communism anymore. 

liao: I guess so. In the old days, I remember, your office used to be 
located in a beautiful building on the main street here. This current 
office looks kind of shabby, doesn t it? Anyway, which year did you join 
the neighborhood committee? 

Mi: It was about forty years ago. When I first started at the neighborhood 
committee, I was not even forty yet. I had suffered injuries on my right 
hand while working at the local machinery factory. They put me on dis- 
ability leave and assigned me a part-time job at this neighborhood com- 
mittee. At the beginning, I was pretty depressed because working at a 
factory was a very popular profession in the 1960s. Mao called workers 
the pioneers ol the Communist revolution. I couldn t see myself 
working with a bunch of gossipy mothers and grandmothers who 
staffed the neighborhood committees here. The local officials offered 
me encouragement and support. They told me that controlling every 
household in the neighborhood was an important task. We had to 
watch out for bad elements that could pose a threat to our Communist 
rule. They even honored me by electing me to be a delegate to the Dis- 
trict People’s Congress, the local legislative body. So, after a while, I 
began to like it. 

The old neighborhood committee building belonged to a rich capi- 
talist. He had owned a textile factory before the revolution in 1949. All 
ol his children had escaped overseas. He and his wife were left behind 
because they didn t want to live in a foreign country. In the early 1950s, 
the government took over his factory and converted it into a state asset. 
The capitalist lost his job and simply stayed home, idling around all day 
long. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the passion of the 
Red Guards was almost palpable. They were ready to kill or beat up any 
counterrevolutionaries. That capitalist knew very well that he could be 
the next target. So, one day, when Mr. Wang, the local police chief, and 
I walked into his house, that guy immediately offered to move out of 
his house. He said he had committed crimes by exploiting workers in 


his factory. After years of receiving Communist education, he had 
reformed himself and wanted to start a new chapter in life. He called 
the house a symbol of his family’s shameful past. His only request was 
for a smaller apartment so he and his wife could have a place to sleep. 
Mr. Wang was a no-nonsense guy. He took out his pen and wrote a let- 
ter, ordering the local housing authority to arrange a small run-down 
apartment for the capitalist. So the neighborhood committee moved 
into the big house. 

liao: How could you take over other people's property like that? 

mi : In that era, Chairman Mao’s words were the supreme law. To tell you 
the truth, after we converted his living quarters into an office, his old 
neighbors applauded the decision unanimously. That capitalist and his 
wife used to live in that huge courtyard house with over ten rooms 
while his neighbors were crammed inside tiny run-down apartments. 
We kept asking ourselves: What was so special about him? Anyway, his 
decision to move out had also saved the house from being burned 
down by the young Red Guard rebels. 

liao: What happened to the house later on? 

Mi: During the Cultural Revolution, people in the neighborhood were all 
divided into different factions. Each faction believed that they were 
more revolutionary than the others. There were gunfights every night. 
The neighborhood committee office served temporarily as the head- 
quarters for one of the powerful factions. A couple of years later, the 
provincial Communist Party dissolved the warring factions. The house 
was then occupied by a local government agency. It wasn't until the 
mid-1970s that the neighborhood committee was allowed to move back 
in again. 

liao: Is the neighborhood committee part of the city government? 

Mi: It's a pseudo-government organization. I will say it’s at the bottom 
level on the city government organizational chart. The local public 
security bureau is a bona fide government agency. Right now, only one 
policeman has been assigned to our neighborhood. So the committee 
ends up being the eyes and ears of the police. 

The Neighborhood. Committee Director 185 

liao: Did you get a regular salary when you were the director? 

Mi: I got a monthly stipend. Do you consider that salary? Let me tell you, 
that menial job was the hardest thing in the world. We made sure all 
the Party policies were being communicated to every household, and 
we were obligated to report to authorities what people were doing. If a 
woman violated the one-child policy and became pregnant with her 
second child, we had to talk with her and persuade her to have an abor- 
tion. If she refused, we would have to report her to her work unit. 
She could end up losing her job. If a couple got into a fight or a young 
person didn't want to pay money to support his ailing parents, we 
would be called on to mediate and resolve the family crisis. Of course, 
priorities shifted all the time. For example, thieves and gang members 
are now as rampant as rats. Without the help of the neighborhood com- 
mittee, the public security bureau would have a hard time cracking 
down on them. 

liao: I see. Could you tell me how the neighborhood committee ended 
up in this shabby office here? 

mi: In the late 1970s and 1980s, China started the "open door” policy. 
Overnight, having a relative overseas became a fashionable thing. The 
government rolled out its red carpet for overseas Chinese, hoping that 
they would invest in China. That capitalist I mentioned earlier had two 
sons who returned from America in 1985. They were very shrewd peo- 
ple. When they first walked into the courtyard, they bowed to us three 
times, expressing their gratitude to the Chinese government, the Com- 
munist Party, and the neighbors for “taking care” of their house. They 
even presented a banner to show their gratitude. 

liao: You and the local Communist Party took their house illegally. Were 
they really serious about “thanking” you? 

mi: That was American capitalistic bullshit. It was a diplomatic way to 
kick us out ot the house. We had no other alternatives but to get out. 
The minute we moved out, the two guys put the house up for sale. It 
was the eighties. China's economy was not as developed as it is today. 

1 he majority of the people here lived on meager salaries and there 
werent any rich people around. So the house ended up on the market 


for a long time. Then those two hastards contacted the city, offering to 
sell the house to the government at a hefty price of 300,000 yuan 
[US$36,000]. That was so evil. If it had been in Mao’s era, the revolu- 
tionary neighbors would have stepped out and slapped them in the 
face. Oh well, times had changed. The government showed lots of 
mercy toward those two American bastards and decided to buy it. They 
hoped the kind gesture could help heal the wounds of the capitalist who 
had been traumatized during the Cultural Revolution and help lure his 
children back from the U.S. You know what? Those two bastards had 
already been brainwashed by the U.S. imperialists. They took the 
money and left. They even complained that we had trashed their home. 

liao: But I think buying the house might be a good deal for the govern- 
ment. Considering the real estate market here, don’t you think that 
house is worth at least two million yuan [US$240,000] now? 

Ml: The house was demolished. It was really a shame. I’m not wasting 
any regrets over the house. I just hated the fact that the money had 
gone into the pockets of those two bastards. In the 1980s, 300,000 yuan 
was worth a lot. We could have used that money to build ten elemen- 
tary schools for children in poor regions. The street where the house 
used to be was close to the main thoroughfare. The whole block was 
demolished to give way to a new shopping mall. Those who lived in 
that area were lucky because they were able to relocate to new houses 
in nicer areas. 

But this area here is on an isolated corner. It’s a ghetto. Several 
developers have come, but have not seen any potential for development. 
Those who get stuck here will be stuck here torever. Some older folks 
still come to the committee out of habit, thinking that we could some- 
how help them relocate to a new area. This is not the Mao era. What 
do they expect us to do? 

liao: People like you are still considered the backbone of the govern- 

Mi: But who is my backbone? 

liao: Don’t be so pessimistic. Nowadays, people are no longer enthused 
about Communist revolutions the way they used to be in the 1960s and 

The Neighborhood Committee Director 187 

1970s. But your services are still needed. In this area, there are all kinds 
of migrants floating around. If anything happens, such as robberies or 
gang fights, the public security officers wouldnt even know where to 
start their investigation without your help. From your little shabby 
office here, you can see clearly which family is playing mah-jongg and 
engaged in gambling, which apartment has been rented out, who the 
visitors are, and which young couples are moving in together before 
they get married, etc. As a kid, I remember gang members were afraid 
of you because you were connected with the local public security 
bureau. Before police decided to send anyone to the reeducation 
camp, they would consult with you first. 

Mi: They still consult with me now. But under most circumstances, the 
public security bureau no longer sends kids to reeducation camps. 
They simply levy a heavy fine. Not long ago, my daughter led the pub- 
lic security officers to search an apartment building, and they found 
ten guys who had migrated here from the rural areas. None of them 
had any' city resident permits. Some were caught gambling. Others 
were found watching porno tapes together. The officers rounded them 
up and put them in a suburban detention center. Several days later, 
they paid a fine and were released. 

liao. I don t think you can arrest or detain people simply because they 
don't have a resident permit, or simply because they watch porn. 

Mi: You have the wrong ideas in your brain. To me, it is a crime to watch 
pornography because it leads to sex crimes. In the old days, people 
were jailed for reading a handwritten manuscript of a love story. 
Remember the kid who lived next door to you? He was circulating the 
handwritten book The Yearning Heart of a Young Woman, which was a 
very popular love story published underground in the 1970s. One of his 
classmates reported him to the police. I led the police to his room and 
we found the evidence. The police hung a black cardboard sign around 
his neck and paraded him around the neighborhood for circulating 
lurid materials to young people. He spent three years in a reeducation 

liao: That was during the Mao era. Just think about it: those kids were 
your neighbors. Why would you want to ruin their future simply 



because they were reading a love story? If you go to the shopping malls 
nowadays, you can get all sorts of magazines and books on love and sex 
at the newsstands. 

mi: You can have too much sympathy for bad people. I can tell who is a 
good person and who is a bad person by simply looking at him. In the 
old days, there was a North Korean movie called The Invisible Battle- 
field. The movie told a story about how counterrevolutionaries were try- 
ing to overthrow the Communist government in North Korea. I was 
very touched by the movie. 1 proposed that all neighborhood commit- 
tee members should see the movie, and become vigilant. The movie 
was a good education for us. We decided to mobilize all the people in 
the neighborhood, so they could report to us any suspicious activities. 
Before the 1980s, each time we received a tip, we would conduct large- 
scale searches of individual homes. 

liao: 1 remember that. In 1975, my uncle was released from prison. He 
was among the last batch of POWs to receive amnesty from the gov- 
ernment. After he got home, you led the police to our apartment. My 
uncle was taken away and detained overnight. 

ml Well, your uncle fought on the side ol the Nationalists during the 
civil war. He was categorized as a class enemy. It was our job to be vig- 
ilant. Oh well, I had to apologize for the detention. He turned out to be 
a nice man. Over the past forty years, that was probably the only mis- 
take I ever made. At present, the government has beefed up its crack- 
down on crime. Since last year, there have been several large-scale 
police roundups. But the neighborhood committees are no longer play- 
ing a critical role as they used to. 

liao: Is it good or bad? 

Mi: Well, what do you think? We have been treated as a symbol of the 
past. My feelings are hurt. 

liao: I personally think that the neighborhood committee was given too 
much power in the Mao era. Nowadays, we need to rule society with 
law. You guys cannot just search people’s homes at random. Like every- 

The Neighborhood Committee Director 189 

one else in China, people at the neighborhood committee should find 
something else to keep them busy. 

mi. We are trying to reinvent ourselves. Last summer, the government 
provided Funding and authorized the neighborhood committee to open 
a teahouse, which turned out to be a very successful venture. My orig- 
inal idea was to make the teahouse a venue to publicize government 
policies. In the old days, all the neighbors gathered together every 
Wednesday afternoon to sit in the open air to study Mao's works and 
read Party newspapers. I figured the old mandatory study sessions no 
longer worked. But we could use the teahouse to get folks in the neigh- 
borhood to come in and sip tea while reading the Party papers. It was 
like killing two b'irds with one stone. Also, the teahouse could create a 
couple of jobs for those unemployed youth. But this teahouse venture 
turned into a monster. Nobody wanted to hear me read the newspa- 
pers. Not only that, they even booed me off the podium several times. 
So my daughter told me to be more flexible and stop preaching Com- 
munism. We then invited some Sichuan opera singers to perform at the 
teahouse. Old folks loved it, but young people hated it. They used all 
sorts ot means to sabotage it. One evening, soon after the operas 
started, a young guy called the local TV station to come investigate 
noise pollution in the teahouse. The journalist filed a news report that 
totally distorted the truth about us. It was just so hard to please every- 
one. In the end, our customers decided to take matters into their own 
hands. They converted the teahouse into a mah-jongg parlor. Soon it 
became so popular that we ran out of mah-jongg tables. People simply 
brought tables from their own homes, and installed a couple more 
lightbulbs in the teahouse. It was really shameful. They turned the tea- 
house into a gambling parlor. They recommended that I charge a fee 
per table. 

liao: You must have made lots of money from it. As the Chinese say- 
ing goes, "When the fortune of God wants to come in, you cannot 
stop it!” 

Ml: I m an old-time Communist who has received years of orthodox edu- 
cation from the Party. How can I lead my people astray to something 



LIAO: Don't you think it’s an overreaction on your part? Playing mah- 
jongg is a popular pastime for people in China. You cannot call mah- 
jongg players evildoers, can you? Besides, all the teahouses in this city 
run mah-jongg games. 

mi: Many folks spent all night here playing mah-jongg. If they won, they 
would go piss away the money in expensive restaurants and whore- 
houses. When they lost, they started stealing. I really regretted what I 
had created, but it was too late to close down. Even my daughter dis- 
suaded me from complaining. One time, the old hunchback who lives 
on the fifth floor of that building gambled away ten thousand yuan 
[US$1,220] just in one night. He became so crazy. He went home and 
drank some DDT to commit suicide. Luckily, his wife found out and 
sent him to the hospital. Otherwise, he would be dead by now. After 
this incident, I went to the police and reported the gambling activities 
at my teahouse. They eventually raided the place. Many people swore 
at me behind my back. As a result, I resigned from the neighborhood 
committee. Right now, the government has appointed my daughter to 
be in charge. 

liao: But I get the impression that you are still in charge. 

Mi: No, not really. My daughter is the real boss. She is in her fifties now. 
She loves to practice tai chi, do folk dancing with other retired women 
in the neighborhood, and hang out with people. Her temperament is 
more suitable for this job. 

liao: Now that the teahouse has been closed down by police, what are 
you going to do next? 

ml I had an electrician install a loudspeaker on the rooftop of this office 
building and set up a mini radio station so I can broadcast news three 
times a day. Actually, the neighborhood committee ran the radio station 
for over ten years. Before the 1980s, most residents didn’t have TV at 
home and they couldn’t afford to subscribe to newspapers. Therefore, 
that radio station was very popular. I even hired a professional radio 
announcer, who would read excerpts from the newspapers or party 
documents. We also aired revolutionary music, such as “East Is Red." 

The Neighborhood Committee Director 191 

Our radio program was quite professional and could compete with the 
big radio station in Beijing. When TV reached the homes of everyone 
here, nobody cared about radio anymore. But now, I have started again. 

liao: Let me take a look at your mini radio station. The whole wall is 
filled with portraits and flags. 1 can see you still keep the big pictures of 
Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Mao 
Zedong the world s well-known Communist leaders. I remember see- 
ing them on this wall when I was a kid. They do look like antiques 
to me. 

Mi: I have had them for over thirty years. 

liao: They are quite authentic then. This room is too small for these 
great men. You make it seem as though you worship these famous 
Communists every day. 

mi: Well, I can't do that. If we want to set up an altar for them, there are 
specific rules. You cannot treat the pictures of these great men the 
same way you do pictures of movie stars. You cannot tilt them, or put 
them in separate places. There are five equally great men, and they 
have to line up on the same wall. Otherwise it would be a political 

liao: Director Mi, your office looks like a museum of the Mao era. Time 
seems to have stopped here. I will try to find another time to read every 
one of those flags and see what is written on them. 

Mi: Those flags were awarded to me for my contributions to the revolu- 
tion. Chairman Mao used to teach us: "Don’t sit on your accolades. 
One needs to continue with the good revolutionary work.” It’s too bad 
nobody will continue with the Communist revolutionary work today. 
The work of the neighborhood committee is getting harder and harder. 
Look, since I relaunched this radio broadcast early this year, I couldn't 
find any young person to commit to this community radio station. Sev- 
eral old folks in the neighborhood are now taking turns doing the 
broadcasting. Since we are old and can’t see properly, we constantly 
make mistakes. We have to shorten the radio broadcast time. We read 



newspaper excerpts and the weather forecast, play music, and air some 
personal commentaries. 

liao: What kind of personal commentaries? 

Mi: For example, in the morning, after we finish the opening music, 
someone will go on the air to remind folks about morning rush hour 
traffic and ask residents to take care when they cross the street. He will 
then talk about the importance of eating breakfast and on how to pre- 
vent low blood sugar. He also urges those young people who have been 
laid off to cheer up and not give up on life. In the evenings, another guy 
will go on the air, telling residents to close their windows and lock their 
doors before going to bed. He will offer tips on how to prevent carbon 
monoxide poisoning, and give the phone numbers for the fire or police 

liao: This is truly like a big Communist family. 

mi: Each time I enter this room and become surrounded by these past 
accolades, my youthful energy comes back. 

liao: You are still young at heart, but your mind is living in the old days. 


For many people in China today ; the Cultural Revolution con- 
jures up images of young students dressed in green army jackets, 
wearing red armbands, waving copies of Mao's Little Red Book 
and chanting Long live Chairman Mao! Known to the world 
as Red Guards, those young rebels raided schools and govern- 
ment agencies, intent on beating up their teachers, intellectu- 
als, and government officials whom they believed were straying 
from Mao's revolutionary line. Between 1966 and 1976, the 
upheaval led to the deaths of millions of Chinese citizens. 

Liu Weidong joined a Red Guard group when he was a 
high school student in Zhongjiang County, Sichuan Province. 
He now lives in Chengdu. 

liao yiwu : When did you become a Red Guard? 

Liu weidong. I think it was in the summer of 1966. That was the year 
when Chairman Mao launched “the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolu- 
tion. It was his view that the Communist revolution, which had taken 
over China in 1949, was starting to lose its impetus. Many Party 
bureaucrats focused too much on developing China’s economy and 
were deviating from socialism. More important, Mao, who was then 
seventy-three years old, believed that his senior colleagues were trying 
to seize power from him. So he enlisted the support of college and high 
school students, who immediately rallied around him. 

liao: According to history books, many radical students began to turn 
on their teachers, administrators, and Party officials, attacking them for 
spreading capitalist and bourgeois ideas. In Beijing, students began to 
wear armbands, calling themselves the “Red Guards”— the defenders 
of Chairman Mao and vanguards of the new revolution. 



Liu: Yes. The concept of the Red Guards spread quickly around the 
country. Students in Sichuan caught on very fast. 

liao: There were many factions within the Red Guard organization in 
Sichuan. Which faction did you join? 

Liu: 1 joined the Army of Revolutionary Rebels group, a county-level Red 
Guard faction. All the nationally famous Red Guard organizations were 
based in big cities such as Reijing and Shanghai. At the county level, 
the Red Guards were merely a group of young rebellious hicks. But the 
Army of Revolutionary Rebels was an exception. We were precocious 
politically, even though most of us were suffering from malnutrition 
and looked much smaller than our ages. 

liao: Compared with today's high school students who are more 
obsessed with MP 3 players and pop music than with the Communist 
revolution, you guys were really precocious. 

Liu: We had no choice. If you didn't pledge to support Chairman Mao, 
you would be accused of going against history. As you know, our par- 
ents who had gone through previous political campaigns all told us that 
the only way to survive in China was to listen to the Party. So, within a 
few weeks after the Cultural Revolution started, we were all mobilized. 
We didn't need to register or get approval to form a Red Guard organi- 
zation. We would just get our buddies together, come up with a revolu- 
tionary name, and have it carved on a rubber or wooden stamp. Then 
we would go buy some red armbands, get a big red flag, and declare 
ourselves a Red Guard group. In Lanting County, over a hundred Red 
Guard organizations were formed within a week. 

liao: With so many Red Guard groups, which government agency was 
supervising them? 

Liu: None. The county Communist Party branch had already been taken 
over by the Red Guards. Prominent government officials were locked 
up as “capitalist readers. ” Then all the Red Guard groups coordinated 
what we called a ten-thousand-person meeting to publicly denounce 
them as enemies of the people. The meeting was held at a high school 

The Former Red Guard 


playground. Every Red Guard group displayed its own red flag in front 
of the stage. It was quite festive. Before the meeting started, a contin- 
gent of counterrevolutionaries was herded onto the stage. Those ene- 
mies included the county chief, the Party secretary, the director of the 
County Cultural Bureau, the principal of the largest county high 
school, former landlords, Rightists, and several of our teachers. The 
Red Guards forced them to wear white paper dunce caps and to hang a 
black cardboard sign around their necks. They lined up in front of the 
podium, with their heads down, arms tied at the back. One after 
another, students went up to the podium, condemning those counter- 
revolutionaries for representing the Four Old Elements of society. The 
public condemnations lasted about four to five hours. After the meet- 
ing, Red Guards paraded those counterrevolutionaries on the main 
thoroughfare. Onlookers shouted slogans such as "Down with those 
who take capitalist roads! Defend Chairman Mao and the Communist 
revolution." Some spat on their former officials and teachers. Kids 
threw stones or chased them around with bamboo whips. I noticed that 
most of the counterrevolutionaries had bloody faces. 

In that era, our passion for the revolution and our admiration for 
Chairman Mao were equally matched by our hatred for those whom 
we believed went against Mao. 

liao: Didn t realize persecuting people could give you guys such a high. 

liu: Oh yes. In previous political campaigns, the purges were carried out 
under the supervision of local Communist Party officials. It was differ- 
ent during the Cultural Revolution. Ordinary folks turned around en 
masse and began to target those in power. Red Guards beat up whoever 
they felt were counterrevolutionaries, without worrying about any con- 
sequences. It was like catching a pickpocket on the street. Every 
onlooker wants to get a piece of the action, slapping or kicking the 
thief. The person who kicked the hardest would get the most applause. 
That was exactly what happened during the Cultural Revolution. 

I also played a role during the ten-thousand-person meeting. My 
job was to stand behind Mr. Bai, our former school principal. Each 
time the audience shouted revolutionary slogans, another Red Guard 
and I would kick Mr. Bai, grab his gray hair, and push his head down 
farther as a sign ol deep repentance. We tied a piece of metal string 



around his neck, with a big chunk of stone hanging at the other end. I 
could see the metal string cut into his flesh. Even so, we were still not 
satisfied and constantly searched for new ways of torturing him. Sev- 
eral days later, he could no longer take it. He had been moaning all day 
long. At night, he asked permission to use the latrine. I escorted him 
there and waited outside. Twenty minutes had passed; he didn't come 
out. So 1 went in. He wasnt in there. I became really nervous and 
immediately reported the incident to the Red Guard headquarters. 
They sent a dozen Red Guards over and we searched all over the latrine 
and there was no sign of him. While we were discussing whether to put 
out a most-wanted poster on the street, we heard noises coming from a 
well outside the latrine. One guy got a very long bamboo stick, and 
reached down, trying to figure out what was happening. The stick 
wasn t long enough and it didn t work. So the commander of my Red 
Guard group ordered me to go down the well myself to check it out. 

With a rope tied to my waist I slipped down the side of the well. 
About ten meters down, I switched the flashlight on and searched the 
water below. There, I saw a body floating, with its face down. My hair 
stood on end. My ears were ringing. My body was shaking. I wanted to 
climb up right away. But if I didn't get the body, 1 knew I was going to 
be in big trouble. 1 composed myself a little bit and called the people 
from above. They threw down another rope with a hook. I grabbed the 
hook, attached it to the shirt collar of the dead body, and climbed up as 
fast as 1 could. Then people on the ground began to pull the other rope. 
Halfway up, the shirt collar broke and the body plummeted back into 
the water like a heavy deepwater bomb. The commander ordered me 
to go down a second time. After 1 pulled the body out, we found out it 
was Mr. Bai. His body was covered with bruises. There was a belt tied 
to his neck. He seemed to have been choked to death, rather than 
drowned. Poor Mr. Bai! He was born into a family of rich and conserva- 
tive intellectuals in the 1940s, when China was still ruled by the 
Nationalists. While he was in college, he joined the underground 
Communist Party. After graduation, he went to teach at high schools in 
the rural areas. He used teaching as a cover to mobilize peasants to 
rebel against the Nationalist government. After the Communist 
takeover, he was appointed the principal of a high school in our county. 
Many times, he turned down promotions and opportunities to work in 
big cities. When the Cultural Revolution started, we accused him of 
forcing students to learn Western science and technology. 

The Former Red Guard 

1 97 

News of Mr. Bai's death spread fast. It was a mystery, and nobody 
knew how he managed to sneak out of the latrine and end up down in 
the well. I was there guarding the latrine. How could he try to kill him- 
self by hanging and then jump into the well? Could it be that he was 
murdered? Someone must have choked him to death and then threw 
him into the well. But what was the motive? He was already declared 
the enemy of the people, and had been punished with severe beatings. 
Why would anyone bother to kill him? 

liao: Mr. Bai disappeared "under your watchful eye”? Didn’t the police 
interrogate you? 

Liu: Not really. All they did was ask me to write down what I had seen. 
They quickly reached a conclusion: suicide to escape punishment. In 
those days, it was very common to see students beat their teachers to 
death. So, if an accused capitalist was tortured to death, nobody cared. 
There was another school principal, who was elected as a model Com- 
munist leader before the Cultural Bevolution. He was a famous horti- 
culturist. He planted many fruit trees inside the school campus and 
converted the school into an orchard. He had students go to classes in 
the morning, and assigned them to work in the orchard in the after- 
noon. For a while, he was a celebrity in the area. People from all over 
the country came to visit his school. In 1967, his students smashed the 
farming tools and accused him of being a capitalist, because he had 
sold the fruits at the local market to fund his school. They locked him 
up in a classroom. Each time there was a public meeting, he would be 
the target for condemnation. After the Red Guards got tired of tortur- 
ing him at public meetings, they forced him to run around the rice 
paddies every day. That went on for about six months. One day, while 
he was running, he plunged right into the rice paddies and never got 
up. He died of exhaustion. The Red Guards were really mad that 
he had been sent to hell so fast. They pulled his body out and dragged 
it over to the school auditorium. There, they had another public 
denunciation meeting before they reported his death to the county. In 
those days, many of the Public Security Bureaus were paralyzed. 
Nobody was in charge. Nobody dared to question the case. If they had, 
they would have been accused of siding with the enemy. It was a law- 
less society. The words of Chairman Mao were the ultimate law of 
the land. 


It was a crazy time. Even elementary school students were mobi- 
lized to rebel against their teachers. Some girls grabbed their female 
teachers and shaved half of their hair off, calling it the “Yin and Yang” 
hairstyle. On the street, you would constantly see children carrying 
Chairman Maos Little Red Book and a red sword made of wood. 
They would stop adults on the street, asking them to recite Chairman 
Mao’s quotations. If they made one mistake, the children would stab 
their back with the wooden sword, and force them to start from the 
beginning. If they continued to make mistakes, children would report 
them to the Red Guards, and that person could be charged with 
“forgetting Chairman Mao’s words.” If the adult became defensive 
and refused to admit guilt, he or she could end up getting slapped in 
the face. 

liao: I remember that. Looking back, those Red Guards were really like 
the Nazis. The Cultural Revolution reminds me of the killing of Jews 
during World War II or the purges under Joseph Stalin in the Soviet 

Liu: That’s an exaggerated statement. Initially, many of those “capital- 
ists were beaten up because they wouldn’t admit their guilt and 
attempted to argue with us. As time went by, they became very obedi- 
ent. If you accused them of being a spy, they would nod their heads and 
agree with everything you said. So the beatings became less severe. 
Then we moved our targets to something else. We began to declare war 
against the oid religious temples, which Chairman Mao called "feudal- 
istic and superstitious strongholds.” Lanting was a small county, but 
there were many Buddhist temples, filled with statues and art objects. 
We first burned scriptures, books, and paintings. Then we used ham- 
mers to smash the smaller statues. With large statues, we borrowed 
rock drills to bore holes in their bodies, and then we smashed their 
heads off. There was a huge Buddhist statue carved on the cliff of a 
mountain. We went up there, trying to get rid of it with rock drills but 
couldnt reach it. One guy managed to get some explosives. That 
sucker ended up blown into pieces. After the statue was gone, we 
painted in red a big slogan on the rocks nearby: “Long Live the Great 
Proletariat Cultural Revolution. Long Live Chairman Mao.” 

There were also lots of funny tales during that time. Some junior 

The Former Red Guard 


monks in a monastery decided to form a Red Guard rebel group. They 
tore off their knsayas and donned Mao jackets. With their shaved 
heads, those monks looked very comical. Our group even sent some 
representatives over to show moral support. The monks dragged the 
abbot out of the temple, pulling the prayer beads from around his 
neck, and then replaced the beads with a black cardboard sign. They 
paraded the abbot and several nuns on the street and had a public 
denunciation meeting. One monk went up to the podium and accused 
the abbot ol spending too much time reading Buddhist scriptures. 
They recommended that the abbot should read the revolutionary works 
of Chairman Mao. Another monk said he once purchased a picture 
of Chairman Mao from the store and wanted to put it up in the main 
prayer hall. But the abbot rejected his request by saying that Chair- 
man Mao was not a god, just an ordinary human being. While the 
young monk was recounting this episode, tears welled up in his eyes. 

1 le walked up to the abbot and slapped him in the face. He then raised 
his arm, shouting: Down with the abbot, the filial descendant of 
Chinas leading capitalists. He then turned around to the nuns and 
shouted: Sister Liu [the senior nun in the temple] is the capitalist’s 
concubine. Down with Buddha, the representative of feudalistic 

liao. That was ridiculous. Didnt you ever think that you guys had gone 
too far? 

Liu: I was born into a family of blue-collar workers. The Cultural Revo- 
lution offered me the opportunity to finally trample on those elite. It 
was glorious. I couldn’t get enough of it. My youth, my dream, and my 
passion were all associated with the Cultural Revolution. The most 
exciting moment in those days was to see Chairman Mao in person, 
when he greeted millions of Red Guards in Beijings Tiananmen 

liao: Tell me how you ended up going to Beijing to see Chairman Mao. 

Liu: Between 1966 and 1967, Red Guard organizations around the coun- 
try started a nationwide movement to travel and spread Mao’s words to 
the masses. The final destination for the Red Guards would be in Bei- 



jing so we could get a glimpse of our Great Leader. My friends and I 
formed a “Long March Red Guard Touring Group." We walked hun- 
dreds of kilometers to the city of Chengdu. All the hotels in the city 
had opened up to us. The city had even turned the theaters into youth 
hostels because there weren't enough hotels to accommodate all the 
Red Guards. Since we were one of the earliest groups, we managed to 
get into a nice hotel. All we had to do was to show our Red Guard 
badges and we could eat and live for free. During the day, we would go 
out to the local market to buy or swap pins and badges of Chairman 
Mao. By the way, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, every region 
and every company designed and produced its own Chairman Mao 
pins and badges. They became collector’s items. 

Not long after, we all became bored with Chengdu and decided to 
board the train for Beijing. When we showed up at the station, the 
Beijing-bound trains were quite full. My buddies and I climbed in 
through the windows. Each car was dangerously packed: people lay on 
the baggage racks or under the seats; many simply stood back-to-back 
in the aisles. It was hard to breathe. Despite the hard conditions, none 
of us wanted to get off. It was already September. We had heard that 
Chairman Mao would greet the Red Guards one more time that year. 
There was no way we would miss it. 

The train finally moved haltingly, but half an hour later, it stopped. 
Then it moved again. There was no schedule to follow and the train 
just took its time. Each time the train stopped, the heat inside the cars 
would become unbearable. But we didn’t dare to drink water because 
there was no access to toilets, which were filled with people who 
couldnt find a space. We could only use the toilet when the train 
pulled into a station. Many girls ended up peeing in their pants. When 
guys couldn’t hold it, some simply squeezed close to the window, took 
out their stuff, and then aimed at the outside. During those desperate 
moments, everyone was so understanding. 

Believe it or not, we were on the train for over forty-eight hours 
before we finally arrived in Beijing. 

We slept inside a classroom at an elementary school. On the night 
before Chairman Mao’s appearance, we were so excited that we 
couldn t sleep. At about 3 a.m., we put on our green Red Guard jackets 
and walked for about eight kilometers toward Tiananmen Square. By 
the time we got there, the main road had already been cordoned off by 

The Former Red Guard 


police. We had to walk around and follow the crowd to another 
entrance, liananmen Square, which is about 440,000 square meters, 
was fully packed with Red Guards. I looked around and saw a sea of 
green uniforms and red flags, which were waving in the early morning 
breezes. Everyone felt so proud, anticipating the most exciting moment 
to come. 

We stood in the square from early morning until noon. Finally Mao 
emerged in the tower over the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Instantly, the 
square became alive with the deafening sounds of slogan shouting. We 
waved red flags and the Little Red Book, crying and chanting, “Long 
live Chairman Mao. Mao took off his green army cap and waved it in 
his hand. Through the microphone, he shouted back, “Long live the 
people. You wouldnt believe the excitement that the Great Leader 
had generated. We felt the Great Leader and the people were one. We 
stayed in Tiananmen Square for several hours under the hot sun, jump- 
ing and screaming. Our adrenaline was running high. Many of us lost 
our voices and couldn’t talk for several days afterward. We were so 
euphoric, happy, and blissful. 

liao: Do you still have the same euphoric feeling you had then? 

Liu: No, but 1 still cherish those memories. I will never forget them. We 
were so pure and innocent. 

liao: What do you mean you were pure and innocent? Beating up your 
teachers, smashing ancient relics, and engaging in armed fights among 
the various Red Guard groups, those were not the doings of pure and 
innocent people. 

liu. We were fighting lor our beliefs. We were defending Chairman Mao 
and the Communist revolution. Anyone who obstructed the revolution 
deserved to be punished. Today, most people no longer have any spiri- 
tual aims. Money is everything and people are killing one another for 
money. Women sell their bodies for money. Corrupt officials sacrifice 
their principles and violate laws for money. A son can strangle a mother 
to death to get her money. Money corrupts the soul of this country. 
Where are the Communist ideals and beliefs? Oh well, my generation 
was so passionate about Communism. We gave up schooling to engage 



in the revolution. Later on, when Chairman Mao encouraged high 
school graduates to settle down in the countryside to receive reeduca- 
tion from peasants, we followed Mao’s holy words, bid goodbye to our 
parents in the city, and left without any hesitation. In other parts of the 
world, people in their teens and early twenties were learning science, 
technology, arts, and literature in colleges. In China, we wasted our 
younger days plowing and planting in the rice paddies. Now that the 
Mao era is long gone, people of my generation have become a bunch of 
useless simpletons. Those capitalists, who used to be the target for per- 
secution, are now ruling the world. The Chinese government calls 
itself a socialist country, but it has gone full-blown capitalistic. As I 
have told you, since people like me didn't get to go to college when we 
were young, we have become the first ones to be laid off. Compared 
with many of my fellow Red Guards who are still stuck in the country- 
side, poor and neglected, I’m pretty lucky. At least I have managed to 
move back to the city. 

liao: What’s your status now? 

Liu: The company I work for used to be state-owned. It’s been insolvent 
for years, hut the government subsidized it. With the current market 
reform, the government has abandoned state enterprises. My company 
is on the verge of bankruptcy. Half of the people in my company have 
been laid off. I work in the human resources department and have 
managed to stay on. But life is just going downhill day by day. I’ve been 
told that a private developer has expressed an interest in buying the 
company, demolishing the old factory buildings, and building luxury 
residential houses. Who knows what will happen next. I don’t even 
dare to think about it. Oh well, so far, my life has been a total failure 
and a waste. I'm already forty-nine. If 1 lose my job, 1 can't see myself 
starting all over again. It's too difficult. 

During the Cultural Revolution, I remember we felt we were invin- 
cible and aspired to save the whole world with Communism. I would 
never have imagined that l could end up like this half a century later. 1 
can’t even save myself. 


There used to he more than twenty political prisoners locked up 
inside a prison in northern Sichuan. All of the prisoners were 
participants in the student democracy movement 0/1989. They 
were charged with "propagating and instigating counterrevolu- 
tionary activities. Their sentences ranged from two to tivelve 

Wan Baocheng, who was then thirty-five years old, came 
from what we call a red family because his father was a senior 
official and had fought with Chairman Mao during the war 
against the Nationalists in the 1940s. From the way he talked 
and behaved, one could hardly tell that Wan had a distin- 
guished parent and that he used to be a powerful official him- 
self. During that special time in 1989 when the whole country 
woke up to the call of democracy, he became an enemy of the 

This interview took place in February of 1993 when I was 
locked up in the same jail with Wan. He was released in 1994. 

liao yiwu: Among all those who have been locked up here since the 
1989 student democracy movement, you held the highest position 
within the government. Is that right? 

WAN BAOCHENG: I guess so. Before I landed in here, I was the deputy 
director of the largest government-owned bank in Sichuan. I was the 
best ot the crop in my field. I used to be an expert on the government’s 
economic policies. Each time the government issued a new policy, I 
would study it very diligently. I was also a keen reader of the Commu- 
nist Party official newspaper— People’s Daily. It was the basic training 
for a government official. 1 followed the Communist Party line at all 
times and avoided making mistakes. 



LIAO: How did a distinguished government official and businessman like 
you end up here? 

wan: In May of 1989, I happened to be in Beijing on a business trip. My 
assignment there was to collect an overdue loan payment. We had 
planned to send a clerk to do the collection, but the students' pro- 
democracy demonstrations were at full throttle. The whole country 
was in chaos. As a measure of prudence, I decided to go myself. 

liao: Why did your bank issue a loan to someone way out in Beijing? 

wan: The company was headquartered in Beijing and had opened up a 
branch in Sichuan. Then the branch was closed and all the assets were 
transferred back to its headquarters. Anyhow, I took the train to Beijing 
at the end of May. It was such bad timing. As you remember, the stu- 
dent demonstrations started in April to commemorate the passing of 
the former Communist Party secretary Hu Yaobang. Then the demon- 
strations turned into protests against government corruption and a call 
for democracy. By the end of May, when the government refused to 
engage in a dialogue with protesters, the movement spread all over the 
country. More students poured into Beijing. 

The minute 1 walked out of the train station, which was fairly close 
to Tiananmen Square, I could feel the tension. People from all walks of 
life joined the students and the whole city was paralyzed. Since the 
government media blocked out news relating to the demonstrations, 
rumors that people heard through the grapevine were getting more and 
more dramatic. One minute, you heard someone say that the air force 
had been mobilized and would parachute troops into Tiananmen 
Square for the crackdown. Another minute, you heard that a pro- 
student general, supported by several senior Chinese leaders, had 
started a coup. 

My mind was pretty much all set, and I didn’t believe any of those 
rumors. My father used to serve in the Communist troops under Mao 
and he pledged full loyalty to the Party. Somehow, I must have inher- 
ited some of the loyalty genes from him. People around me were all in 
a frenzy, but I chose to stay calm and focus on my work. 

I went directly to the company’s headquarters. The building was 
empty. There was one person at the reception desk. She told me that 


The Counterrevolutionary 

the managers and staff had gone to Tiananmen Square, waving ban- 
ners and flags to show support for the students. So I left and checked 
into a hotel near Cuiwei Road in downtown Beijing. My room was on 
the second floor, with the window facing a busy intersection. I could 
see residents and students march by under my window. Before dusk, I 
went downstairs and watched people gather in small groups, exchang- 
ing the latest news and rumors. Someone standing on a wooden box 
said about thirty thousand soldiers would enter the city to keep order. 
Another one in the audience argued that there would be twenty thou- 
sand. Anyway, things around the hotel didn’t quiet down until after 

I stayed inside my room reading work-related material. The next 
day, I went back to the company again and couldn't find anyone. So I 
decided to postpone my trip back for another two days. On the night of 
June 3, 1989, I could see that the street outside my window was getting 
more and more crowded. The hotel was eerily empty because all the 
staff members had left to join the students in the street. Someone was 
standing on the stairs of the front entrance, and was delivering a 
speech on how to set up roadblocks to stop tanks from entering the 
city. The crowd got denser by the hour. I had never seen people so pas- 
sionately involved since the Cultural Revolution. But for me, nothing 
changed my long-standing support for the government. I continued to 
be nonchalant and even went to bed earlier than usual. 

Later that night, the commotion outside the hotel became louder. I 
got up, closed my window, and went back to bed. 1 kept reminding 
myself that I was a government official and shouldn’t join the mob out- 
side. So I took a sleeping pill and soon I was out cold. 

I was awakened by loud gunshots outside. I remember going to the 
window, and I saw soldiers shooting and tanks rolling in the street. Like 
I have said, I had never seen anything like that in my whole life. During 
the Cultural Revolution, when different factions of the Red Guards 
were fighting against each other, some gunfights were involved. But 
this was nothing like that. On that night, the ones carrying guns on the 
street were our own soldiers. They shouldn’t shoot at innocent citizens. 
Their guns should have been aimed at our enemies outside China. I 
wanted to check to see what was going on, but I was still under the 
influence of the pill. My head was heavy. I soon fell asleep again. 

At about ten in the morning, a loud knock on the door woke me up. 



It was the cleaning lady. She walked in and started to scream: Sir, how 
could you sleep under such conditions? Look at your window. I looked 
in the direction of her finger, and saw the window had been hit by a 
stray bullet and glass was shattered all over the floor. Thank heaven I 
hadn't stood by the window long that night. Otherwise 1 would have 
been shot dead. The cleaning lady told me that a guy on the tenth floor 
had reached his head out to yell at the soldiers on the street. He was hit 
by a bullet and died. When I heard this story, blood rose to my head. 1 
couldn’t be an outsider anymore. 

liao: So you changed your views about the student movement. 

wan: Yes. I looked out of my window and saw the wreckage on the 
street. I saw hundreds of helmet-wearing soldiers patrolling the street. 
Every couple of minutes, there would be a tank rumbling by. A young 
civilian guy was running on the street. The soldiers ordered him to 
stop. I could tell that the guy was scared. He stopped for a few 
moments, but then started running to escape. One soldier raised his 
gun and shot at him from behind. The guy fell forward, and then 
plopped down, motionless. It was like in one of those war movies. I 
don't think my dad, who fought in the Chinese civil war, had witnessed 
such horrible scenes before — a soldier killing an unarmed civilian. 

I was stunned. The cleaning lady pulled me from the window and 
asked me to go back to bed. She warned me: The soldiers have become 
crazy. If you get hit by a stray bullet, it will be your tough luck. Nobody 
is taking responsibility. 

Well, I didn't care. During the next few days, I showed up on the 
street and talked with those who had witnessed the government brutal- 
ity on the night of June 4 . 1 visited two hospitals and saw students and 
residents who had been wounded by bullets. However, when I turned 
on the TV in the evenings, there was no mention of the massacre. The 
official version was that the Chinese soldiers had defended the capital 
from a small handful of “hooligans” and that nobody was killed. To me 
as an economist, the most important thing was honesty. I felt the urge 
to write. I jotted down everything I had seen and heard. In the past, 1 
had only written numerous accounting reports or office memos. 
Overnight, I became a different kind of writer. My pen was flying. 
Sometimes I wrote with total outrage, and other times with tears 
streaming down my cheeks. 


The Counterrevolutionary 

Within a week, I finally finished the draft of my article. It was seven 
pages long. I corrected some grammatical errors and rewrote some pas- 
sages. Since we didn’t have computers then, I had to hand-copy the 
draft neatly on fresh paper. I called my article "An Eyewitness Account 
of June 4. Before I left Beijing, I secretly went to a store and Xeroxed 
one hundred copies. 

On the train back from Beijing, I began to distribute the article to 
my fellow passengers. It was about a week after the government crack- 
down. All the student leaders had been placed on the government s 
most-wanted list. Police were on heightened alert and constantly 
searched the train cars for former leaders who were on the run. I was 
very cautious. Luckily, many people pitched in to help. By the time the 
train pulled into my hometown station, I had given away all the copies. 

Life became normal again. I took a couple of days off and then 
resumed my work at the hank, as if nothing had happened. In the back 
of my mind though, I was nervous. 

In the following month, every employee at the bank was forced to 
condemn the student movement and to pledge support for the Party. 
Many people who were privately outraged at the government massacre 
had to show compliance in public. Protesting against the government 
was like throwing an egg against a big rock — a futile attempt with big 
personal loss. Everyone was supposed to read articles from the People’s 
Daily and toe the Party line. At staff meetings, I also voiced my support 
for the government's decision. As the deputy director of the bank, I had 
to take the lead in the brainwash movement. At the end of the month, 
since no employee at my bank claimed any involvement in local 
demonstrations, we all ended up with a handsome bonus. I knew that 
many people had joined the demonstrations, but nobody reported on 
the others. 

As time went by, 1 almost forgot about what I had done in Beijing, 
hut the police didn't. Two months later, I think it was in August, my 
director called me into his office. When I walked in, I saw two other, 
strangers in there too. My director said, Mr. Wan, please confess every- 
thing you did in Beijing. His words sent cold chills down my spine. 
Almost instinctively, I pretended to be dumb: Director, you know very 
well what I have done. Upon hearing this, my director’s face turned red 
and he said: Unfortunately, we don t know what you have done. 

Later on, 1 found out that the police had obtained the article from 
several passengers who had helped with the police search. They had 



been following me for quite some time. After I was detained, many 
people refused to believe that, as a shrewd official, I could have been 
involved in something like that. At a briefing to the city council regard- 
ing my case, the municipal Party secretary even defended me by say- 
ing: It’s impossible. He was born into a revolutionary family. His father 
and I joined the Communist army in the same year. Mr. Wan Junior is 
also a good Communist. He was admitted to the Party at the age of 
eighteen. He grew up under my nose and has always been a good boy 
and an excellent banker. It can’t be true. The Party secretary even 
pleaded: This kid is a rising star. Please don’t make the wrong charges 
and ruin his career. 

The police, becoming impatient with the defensive remarks of my 
family and friends, invited my relatives to an office and showed them 
my article and the testimonies from the hotel staff and passengers on 
the train. Everyone was shocked. Embarrassed by the good things he 
had said about me, the Party secretary signed my arrest warrant. 

Faced with the evidence, I had no choice but to confess. Luckily, I 
didn’t have an accomplice and my case was relatively simple. But 
instead of admitting any wrongdoing, I openly declared that what I had 
written in the article was true. That was when the shit hit the fan. My 
dad’s former colleagues — I mean those who held important positions 
in the city, my boss at the bank, and even leaders at the Public Security 
Bureau — came to the detention center to reason with me, and to per- 
suade me to retract my statement. They advised me to plead guilty by 
claiming that some evil people had forced me to make up shameless 
lies to slander and sabotage the reputation of soldiers guarding Tianan- 
men Square. 

I told both the interrogators and my dad's friends: As a Party mem- 
ber, I swear to Chairman Mao that everything I wrote is true. One 
interrogator banged on the desk and said: You are no longer a Commu- 
nist Party member. They have expelled you. But if you admit your 
crime and be cooperative, we will reduce your sentence. I wouldn't 
budge: As a Communist Party official, honesty is something I live by. 
The interrogator was furious: Mr. Wan, don’t be so fucking arrogant. 
You used to be the deputy director of the city’s largest bank. That was 
your past. Right now you are nothing. I didn't buy his attitude: I'm not 
a corrupt official. Don’t you dare speak to me like that! He replied in a 
cynical tone: You would have been lucky if you had been involved in 
a corruption case. At least your dad could use his connection to bail 


The Counterrevolutionary 

you out. You could still go home and live a normal life. In China, you 
know as well as I do, once you get involved in a political case, your 
whole life is done. Don't you understand? I snapped back: Since this is 
a serious political case, I can t admit any wrongdoing. Otherwise, it will 
be like dumping shit all over my head. 

Nobody could change my mind. In the end, they notified my dad. I 
was told that he trembled with fury. He cursed me and let out a loud 
scream: That little short-lived bastard. He then collapsed onto the 
floor. My siblings took him to a hospital nearby and the doctor said he 
had suffered a stroke. He was partially paralyzed, but his mind was very 
lucid. So the police decided to bring my old man out to the detention 
center to see me. Using my dad as a bargaining chip totally destroyed 
my last piece of confidence. When police wheeled him into the deten- 
tion center courtyard, I was heartbroken. He was a healthy person 
before I left. Now he was in a wheelchair. It was just ... too much for 
me to bear. I threw myself at his feet and burst into tears. As you know, 

I m the only boy in the family. He had pinned all his hopes on me. He 
named me after the Baocheng Railroad, Chinas first cross-province 
railway, which opened up in 1957. He was hoping that my future could 
be as developed as the railroad. When I was growing up, I tried to live 
up to his expectations, and I did very well in school. He used to tell 
people that I was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He 
could never have imagined visiting his son in prison. 

When police saw me crying like that, they began to think that their 
game plan was working. One guy, who was the police chief, helped me 
to my feet and said: If you admit your crime, we will be able to reduce 
your sentence. You can spend more time with your dad, taking care of 
him. You can continue to work hard at the bank to make up for your 
crimes. There were many innocent people like you who have been 
deceived by the counterrevolutionaries. People and the government will 
forgive your past. I hope you can return to the bosom of the Commu- 
nist Party and the Chinese people. My father kept nodding while the 
police chief delivered his lecture. The old man even summoned enough 
strength to raise his hand and said, Do what the Party tells you to. 

I became really agitated. I raised my voice and said: Dad, you know 
very well what kind of person I am. One of the things that I have 
learned from you is to be honest, and never lie or cheat. What I have 
written is all true. Innocent people were killed in Beijing. 

He interrupted me and gave me a nasty look: You only witness what 



you are allowed to see. So what if you witnessed the killing? Those 
counterrevolutionaries deserved to die. We fought hard with Chairman 
Mao and have made China red. We can’t easily give up. We can’t allow 
the former Nationalist government or the American imperialists to 
destroy Communism in China. I think you have sat your butt on the 
wrong chair. You have moved to the enemy camp. You have slacked off 
on your political studies and have been corrupted by Western thinking. 
Its very dangerous. You should accept the punishment. You are my son 
and you should listen to me. 

Seeing that my dad was sweating profusely, I couldn’t bear to argue 
with him anymore. The police felt very relieved and asked me to record 
an "I plead guilty” message in front of my dad. I did. 


liao: You didn't raise any hell after your dad left, did you? 

wan: I finally decided to compromise and admit that “my action had 
jeopardized the reputation of our country and the Communist Party.” 
But I didn’t accept the charges that I had made up stories and spread 
rumors. Those charges were such insults to my character. Do you 
remember that poor Chinese guy on American TV? Following the gov- 
ernment crackdown, that guy told an American reporter on camera that 
there was blood all over Tiananmen Square and that thousands of peo- 
ple had been killed. He had exaggerated, of course. After the interview 
was aired in the U.S., the Chinese government was furious and put this 
guy on the government’s most-wanted list. A week later, he was caught 
and was sentenced to ten years in prison. I’m not that guy. I didn’t exag- 
gerate or lie. Anyway, my case is not over yet. Someday, when the offi- 
cial verdict on Tiananmen Square is reversed, I'm going to sue the 
government for wrongful imprisonment. 

liao: You ve been sentenced to four years in prison, right? 

wan: Yes, four years. It could have been worse. During the final court 
hearing, the judge said that my sentence was reduced due to my coop- 
erative attitude. That was such baloney. Before I got here, I had never 
encountered any counterrevolutionaries. I’m now locked up with over 
twenty counterrevolutionaries who were involved in the June 4 student 
movement. All of them are just ordinary folks: teachers, college stu- 

The Counterrevolutionary 211 

dents, workers, migrant workers, a deputy county village chief, a tax 
collector, a journalist, and some unemployed youngsters. There is a 
student from a technical high school who was not even eighteen when 
he was arrested. Everyone is so kind, not only to one another, but also 
to animals. 

Let me tell you a story. One morning, a pigeon suddenly fell from 
the sky to the ground. I was the first one to discover the poor thing. Ini- 
tially, the pigeon haltingly stretched its wings and attempted to fly 
again. But, seconds later, it plunged like a piece of stone to the court- 
yard ground. We all dashed out and carefully picked it up. Luckily, the 
ground was covered by a layer of snow, which saved the life of that poor 
thing. But its wings and legs were broken. This small accident glued all 
the inmates together and kept us busy for quite some time. We took 
turns caring for that little pigeon. One guy made a cast out of a bamboo 
shoot and attached it to the pigeons leg. Another inmate stole some 
antibiotic ointment and cotton swabs from the prison clinic to treat its 
wounds. My new friend, Little Yang, got some uncooked rice from the 
prison kitchen, chewed the rice in his mouth to make a pulp, and then 
led it to the pigeon. At first, the pigeon wouldn t take anything. Little 
Yang and Old Lei pried its beak open and gently fed it down its throat. 
During the next few days, we dug up worms, and saved rice, beans, and 
corn from our own ration to feed the bird. We divided our group into 
five nursing teams. During the daytime, when we labored away in the 
field, we hid the pigeon inside a mosquito net over an upper-level bunk 
bed. We put a small bowl of rice on the bed and placed a piece of news- 
paper under the pigeon to catch its droppings. Generally speaking, 
political prisoners were treated slightly better than ordinary criminals. 
Guards seldom checked our cells. After two weeks, the pigeon was 
fully recovered. It became restless and was ready to say goodbye. Every- 
one felt very sad. At the same time, we all envied the pigeon’s ability to 
fly to a free world outside. 

The time finally came. The pigeon fluttered its wings, turned 
around and around on the ground, and kept cooing to us. It was such a 
smart bird. Lao Lei had an idea: Why dont we use this pigeon to send 
a message to the outside world? 

Everyone thought it was a great idea. We found a pen and a piece of 
paper. Lao Lei wrote a message on our behalf: We are the twenty-three 
political prisoners. We are in jail because of our involvement in the 



June 4 student movement. We aim to overthrow the totalitarian system 
and bring democracy to China. That’s our aspiration. We hope people 
outside don't forget about us and about our fight for democracy. 

We tied the paper to the leg of the pigeon and held a farewell cere- 
mony in the courtyard. We named the pigeon our “messenger for 
democracy" and released it. The pigeon circled above our heads and 
then up to the sky. A few minutes later, for some unknown reason, the 
bird came back, circled around, and flew in the direction of the correc- 
tional officers’ dorm building. 

Everyone was so carried away and nobody saw the little movement 
at the end as anything unusual. Afterward, we would look at the clock 
on the wall, trying to figure out where the pigeon was at that very 
moment. Lao Lei wondered if the one we saved could be a special mes- 
senger from Hong Kong or Taiwan. Little Yang totally believed it. He 
said it was highly possible. The pigeon from the free world deliberately 
landed in this prison to carry a message of hope to us. I nodded in 
agreement. Inside this hopeless prison, it was better to have something 
to believe in. Hope made time pass fast. 

liao: You guys attached too much symbolic meaning to an ordinary 
pigeon. The world is so big. I wonder where the pigeon finally landed. 

wan: Be patient, I haven’t finished the story yet. The next morning, our 
courtyard was suddenly surrounded by armed police with machine 
guns. Prison officers ransacked our beds and our clothes. All kinds of 
paper products — books, poems or essays written on toilet paper, jour- 
nals — were taken away. Then several officers came in to hold individ- 
ual talks with each one of us. They wanted to investigate what they 
called the “pigeon incident.” 

liao: What happened? Did the pigeon get shot down by the police? 

wan: It turns out the pigeon was a pet raised by one of the prison offi- 
cers. When the pigeon dropped to the courtyard, the guard thought it 
might have been killed. Then, two weeks later, his pet miraculously 
returned, with a note tied to its leg. The officer immediately reported it 
to his boss. They were thrilled by the precious intelligence his pet had 

The Counterrevolutionary 213 

liao: You guys saved a spy pigeon! 

wan: Our hope was dashed in seconds. Several of us were locked up in 
solitary confinement for two days. Luckily, they didn’t find any hard 
evidence. But, after that incident, our whole group was separated. I'm 
now staying with murderers, rapists, and drug dealers. While doing 
physical labor outside, each political prisoner has been assigned two or 
three guards. Life is getting very miserable. 

liao: What are you planning to do after you get out of here? 

wan. I don t think they will allow me to go back to work in the govern- 
ment bank anymore. The government will never give a counterrevolu- 
tionary an opportunity to be financially successful. I don’t know what I 
will do. Maybe I should become a professional democracy advocate. 1 
guess I m supposed to be a piece of stone, being used to pave the way 
for bigger things to happen in China. If that’s my fate, I accept it, even 
if it means sacrificing my life. 


In early 2005, when I was visiting Beijing, I finally had the 
chance to meet Professor Ding Zilin. She founded the Tianan- 
men Mothers, a group of more than 150 courageous families 
who lost relatives on June 4, 1989, when fully armed soldiers 
and military tanks rolled into Beijing and crushed the student 
pro-democracy movement. Professor Ding's only child, a 
seventeen-year-old high school student, was killed by a soldier's 
bullet on a street west of Tiananmen Square as he confronted 
the troops, trying to persuade them to stop using force against 
unarmed students. 

In the past nineteen years, I have heard many heroic stories 
about Professor Ding, who refused to be silenced by the Chi- 
nese government. Following the massacre, she was the first to 
step forward and talk to the Western media about her son's 
death. Despite constant police harassment, house arrests, and 
detention, she has never ceased to gather information about 
other Tiananmen victims and to raise funds from overseas to 
help victims’ families. She has never stopped challenging the 
government claim that the pro-democracy movement was a 
"counterrevolutionary riot" and that soldiers never opened fire 
on citizens. 

On that visit, Professor Ding told me about her upcoming 
book, Looking for the June 4 Victims, which has documented 
the names and stories of those who were killed in the bloody 
crackdown. As I was leaving, she handed me a card and encour- 
aged me to contact Wu Dingfu, a fellow Sichuanese who lost a 
son in the massacre. 

Since Ding's book contained only a small paragraph about 
Wu’s son, I was curious to find out more. After 1 returned to 
Chengdu, I made a phone call to Wu, who lives in Xinjing 
Township, not far from me. When he learned that Professor 
Ding was my friend, he became very enthusiastic and immedi- 
ately invited me over for a visit. 

On the morning of May 19, 2005, I left Chengdu on a 
shabby intercity bus. Three hours later, I arrived in Xinjing 

The Tiananmen Father 


Township. A tricycle cabdriver took me to the Janing Apartment 
Complex. I found Building A, Unit 4, and stepped into the 
dark hallway. A man was standing near the stairu’ay on the sec- 
ond floor. He had a big prominent nose. "You must be Liao 
Yiwu, he said. I nodded. As I followed him through a door on 
the right, I heard footsteps behind. I turned around and saw a 
gray-haired woman. She was Wus wife. I was out waiting for 
you. We must have missed each other," she said apologetically. 

The living room was that of a family going downhill. The 
walls were bare and the furniture old. A large black-and-white 
picture on top of a desk caught my eye. It was a picture of a 
young man. That youthful and perpetual smile beaming from 
his face and the eyes behind the glasses triggered in me a flood 
of sad memories of that turbulent time. As I was lost in thought, 
Wu handed me a cup of tea and said, “That was my son, 
Guofeng, when he was a freshman in college ...” 

liao yiwu: You probably know that the purpose of my visit is to talk with 
you in detail about what happened to your son and the rest of your fam- 
ily during and after June 4. You are not afraid to revisit this painful and 
sensitive topic, are you? 

wu dingfu: Not at all. After my son died, all hopes for my family were 
gone. I m not afraid of being interviewed. Where do you want me to 

LIAO: Why don't we go in chronological order and start with Guofeng as 
a kid. 

wu: OK, I will try. I have three children. The eldest is a daughter. 
Guofeng, who was born in 1968, was the second. He had a younger 
brother. Three generations of the family were born and raised in Xin- 
jing. Ours has always been a working-class family. I was born in 1942. 
When 1 was growing up, I experienced the most turbulent years in Chi- 



nese history — the resistance war against Japan and the civil war 
between the Nationalists and the Communists. My family was quite 
poor and I constantly suffered hunger as a kid. I started school late and 
didn’t finish junior high school until i960. My family couldn't afford to 
pay for my education anymore. So I dropped out of school and got a job 
as a requisition clerk at a small factory. My wife was born in 1944 and 
was also raised in a similarly poor family. She didn’t finish high school 
either. After we were married, she stayed at home as a housewife. 

liao: So the whole family depended on your salary. 

wu: Yes. In the 1970s, my monthly salary was thirty yuan [US$4]. 
Guofeng's mother would pick up some odd jobs such as sewing buttons 
or lock-stitching shirt or pants borders for tailors. So between the two 
of us, we made about forty yuan per month. We had to use that money 
to raise three children. It was under Chairman Mao. Nobody dared to 
run any small business for extra cash. Life was hard but we took com- 
fort in the fact that our second child, Guofeng, was really smart. He 
really made us proud. His grandparents doted on him, treating him like 
a shiny pearl in the palm of their hands. His grandpa was a tricycle 
driver, but he had taught himself how to read and write. He became 
fairly well educated. In his spare time, he would come babysit Guofeng 
and teach him how to write Chinese characters. Under his grandpa’s 
tutelage, Guofeng excelled in elementary school. He was always at the 
top of his class and earned lots of honors. Even at an early age, we 
could tell that he was made for big things in the future. 

liao: I guess poor kids are more motivated to excel. 

wu: Due to our family’s dire financial situation, I persuaded Guofeng to 
apply to a technical school after he graduated from junior high. He 
could learn some practical skills at the technical school and get a good 
steady job, an iron rice bowl. In those years, getting into college was 
very competitive. Only 2 to 3 percent of the high school graduates 
could get the opportunity. My eldest finished junior high school and 
could easily have gotten into a technical school. But we bowed to her 
wish and let her complete senior high school and take the national col- 
lege entrance exam. Guess what? She didn’t make the list. Since the 

The Tiananmen Father 


whole town was filled with high school graduates like her, it was hard to 
get a job. For several years, she just idled around the house. So I didn’t 
want the same thing to happen to Guofeng. But Guofeng was a smart- 
ass. He made a nice promise to me, then he secretly took the senior 
high school entrance exams. Since he had gotten very high scores, he 
was accepted. By the time I found out, the rice was already cooked — 
too late for me to intervene. 

So I accepted reality. I decided to tighten my belt and do everything 
I could to support him. Luckily, in the 1980s, China was changing. Peo- 
ple were allowed to start their own businesses. Guofeng’s mother set 
up a stall in front of our house, selling small groceries to subsidize our 
income. I did the household chores after work and took care of the 
children. I soon forgave Guofeng because he continued to remain at 
the top of his class. 

The last year of senior high was critical. Several months before the 
college entrance exam, all students had to attend intensive exam- 
preparation classes. Many of my neighbors kids began to give up every 
type of extracurricular activity and stayed up very late at night to pre- 
pare for the seven tests that made up the exam. But Guofeng contin- 
ued with his usual routine and looked quite relaxed. I got worried and 
constantly pestered him: Passing the exam is your only way out. Other- 
wise, with your nerdy looks, no factory will want to hire you. Each time 
he heard my nagging, he would adjust the glasses on the bridge of his 
nose and say: No worry, old man. I know what I’m doing. I still didn’t 
trust him. I went to see his teacher. He laughed and repeated the same 
thing. There is nothing to worry about. Your kid does very well. Make 
sure he gets enough rest so he can be ready for the exam. 

liao: You were more nervous than he was. 

wu: My generation had been tossed around so much by Chairman Mao’s 
political campaigns. Our lives were all ruined and wasted. We pinned 
all our hopes on our children. 1 hat s why we could be overly pushy and 
desperate. A couple ot weeks later, the three-day national college 
entrance exam began. It was in the summer of 1986, and hot as hell. 
On the first morning, I put him on the back of my bicycle and pedaled 
him to the testing center. After he walked in, I joined hundreds of other 
parents and waited patiently outside. Not long after, several students 



were carried out of the classrooms on stretchers because they had 
passed out. I was so relieved that my son had survived the initial ten- 
sion. At lunchtime, when his mother put the specially prepared meat 
dishes on the table, I asked how he did. He simply said, in his usual 
laid-back kind of way: Not too good. Good heavens! 1 was expecting a 
more upbeat answer. Oh well, 1 didn't want to say anything that could 
affect his concentration on the rest of his exams. So I simply told him 
to take a nap and get ready for the afternoon test. I waited outside in 
the afternoon, all sweaty. When he came out later, he repeated the 
same thing: Not too good. My heart sank like a big piece of rock. That 
night, 1 lost sleep. In the next three days, my nerves were stretched to 
the limit. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. 

liao: Didn’t you have to go to work? 

wu : I had asked for three days off. My boss was very understanding. The 
whole nation focused its attention on the exam because it was so criti- 
cal for a child’s future. At the end of the third day, when he came out, I 
couldn’t hold it anymore: Tell me what has happened? He finally 
smiled: Old man, I don’t mean to brag. If I fail, 95 percent of the stu- 
dents won’t even have a chance. I was stunned, hut felt so relieved. He 
then asked for some cash: My classmates and I have decided to treat 
ourselves for our hard work. We are going to take turns hosting parties 
at our homes. I immediately offered him one hundred yuan [US$13], 
which was a lot of money then. To tell you the truth, I had never been 
that generous in my whole life. But I was so carried away. 

Two weeks after the exam, the test results were publicized: he got 
the highest score in the whole Xinjing Township, averaging 91.5 in 
seven subjects. As you can imagine, my whole family was overjoyed. 
Neighbors and relatives from afar came to congratulate us. It was such 
an honor. Then the authorities did a political background check and he 
passed. Soon, an acceptance letter arrived from People's University in 
Beijing. I held the letter and burst out crying. Like I said, generations 
of my family had been working class. He was the first one in the Wu 
family to be a local champion in the national exam and to be enrolled in 
a prestigious university in the capital city. I sincerely believed that my 
family’s fortune was finally changing for the better. 

The day he left Xinjing, my factory sent a special car and drove him 

The Tiananmen Father 


to the train station in Chengdu. The station was fully packed and we 
had to wait for several hours. Seeing that we were very sad, he tried to 
cheer us up and told us not to worry about him. He was really different 
from those spoiled rich kids. 

liao: Was this in the fall of 1986? 

wu: Yes. He turned eighteen that year and he was admitted to the indus- 
trial economic management department. Look at this group picture. 
He and his dorm mates had it taken when they first moved in. Guofeng 
was a very independent kid. He got along with his classmates well and 
quickly adjusted to big-city life in Beijing. He was elected deputy class 

We sent him one hundred yuan every month to cover his food and 
other necessities. As society became more and more open, his mothers 
grocery business was taking off. Our life was getting better. In his sec- 
ond year, he began to date a girl from another department at the same 
university. She came from the northeastern city of Changchun. Both of 
her parents were medical professors. Initially, we objected to it, for fear 
that his relationship with that girl could jeopardize his studies. But 
Guofeng was stubborn and he wouldn't listen to us. In the summer, he 
asked for more money, saying that he was accompanying his girlfriend 
to Changchun to meet her parents. So we did send him money. 

liao: The girl in this picture is quite pretty. Looks like they were madly 
in love! 

wu: The girl was quite politically active. She soon became a Communist 
Party member. Guofeng brought her back to Xinjing in their sophomore 
year. When we saw they were so happy together, we became more sup- 
portive. We could see that they were a good match. Of course, after 
Guofeng died, she was still very young and naturally made other 
choices. Since People's University offered her a teaching job after grad- 
uation, she was under a lot of pressure to remain silent about June 4. I 
totally understand it. I choose not to talk too much about her so we 
don’t get her into trouble. 

liao: I understand. 



wu: Anyhow, things worked out smoothly for Guofeng. He was ener- 
getic and full of hope for the future. Of course, he was the only hope of 
our family. Then, in April of 1986, he sent a three-page letter home, 
telling us about the death of Party secretary Hu Yaobang — 

liao: It should be in April of 1989. 

wu: You are right. I'm sorry. It was in 1989, 1989! That was the longest 
letter he had ever written. The letter was filled with excitement. He 
used very poetic language when he described the memorial service in 
Tiananmen Square, the demonstrations on the street, the slogan 
shouting, and the eulogies. He said all his classmates and teachers 
were involved. I immediately wrote him back and reminded him to 
focus on his studies and stay out of politics. 

liao: That was a very typical response of Chinese parents. 

wu: We were not educated enough to advise him. But we knew instinc- 
tively that he could face terrible consequences if he opposed the total- 
itarian government. My generation went through many political 
campaigns. We’ve seen them all. One minute, the Party seems to relax 
its political control. Once you let down your guard, they come out to 
get you. They’ve played this trick for years. The Communist leaders 
change their face like the April weather. I guess living with the fear of 
persecution made us jaded and overcautious. Guofeng lived in Beijing 
and was at the center of everything. He was hot-blooded and wouldn't 
listen to our advice. We wrote back four or five times and I couldn't get 
him to change his mind. In one of his letters, he asked for one thou- 
sand yuan [US$130]. I bowed to his request and sent him the money 
over a period of two months. 

liao: That was a big sum of money. Why did he need so much money? 

wu: He told me he had lost his bicycle. He also needed the money to 
cover his books and food. I was so concerned about him. I sort of 
spoiled him a little bit. 

liao: Was he up to something with that money? 

The Tiananmen Father 


wu: I was completely in the dark. I became so worried, but the only way 
to reach him was through letters. I knew that he and other students 
were pursuing the right path for China and it was hard to turn him 
around. But I kept warning him. In my letters, I wrote: The Commu- 
nist Party is brutal. They have persecuted thousands of people to death 
in the past and have never even bothered to apologize or make com- 
pensation. Guofeng, you have been blessed with the good karma 
brought about by the hard work of generations of the Wu family. You 
were born at the right time, in the post-Mao era. You have the opportu- 
nity to enter college. If you study hard, you will have a promising future. 
\ou will change the miserable fortune of our family. Don t ruin it. 

Oh well, Guofeng was still the young cub, quite inexperienced. Of 
course, he wouldn’t listen to my advice. In the end, he didn’t want to 
get into any arguments with me. He simply stopped writing. Later on, 
after his death, we found out that he had purchased a camera with that 
money. He told his classmates that he wanted to record history and 
leave some valuable snapshots for future generations. 

liao: He was quite visionary. 

wu: We were in a state of feverish fear, like ants crawling on a hot tin 
pan. After work, I came home and stared at the TV all night long. Ini- 
tially, the government media called the student demonstrations a patri- 
otic movement. Then, on April 26, the Peoples Daily newspaper carried 
an editorial, calling the movement a riot. Those bastards! Then, in late 
April and May, there were more protests against the editorial in the 
People's Daily, followed by a hunger strike. Students knelt in front of 
the Great Hall of the People to present their petition to the senior lead- 
ers. Then Premier Li Peng hosted a dialogue with student leaders. 
After that, the government imposed martial law ... I couldn’t take it 
anymore, I wanted to travel to Beijing to get my son back. Finally, on 
May 31, I received a telegram from Guofeng, saying that he was ready 
to come home but didn’t have money for train fare. At that time, I 
didn t know he had bought the camera. I began to wonder where he 
had spent the money. Despite my doubts, I sent him another two hun- 
dred yuan [US$26] and waited for him to come home. I calmed down a 
little bit. Two days passed and he hadn’t arrived. Then, the political 
situation in Beijing changed dramatically. The troops had been ordered 



to crack down on the student protesters. I tried to put a positive spin on 
the crackdown. The government probably used tanks to scare students. 
Well, 1 thought to myself, chasing them back to campus wasn’t a bad 

In the next few days, I became more worried. The stress had led to 
a partial paralysis on my face. I had to see an acupuncture doctor every 
day. On June 8, I was feeling better and sat outside, relaxing in the sun. 
Then two strangers showed up. They were sent by the Xinjing Town- 
ship government. I was told that an official wanted to see me. So I got 
up and followed them to the township government building. After we 
entered the building, I was led to an office. A guy who looked like a 
senior official said without any introductions or greeting: Wu Dingfu, 
do you know that your son was involved in the counterrevolutionary 
riot in Beijing? 

His words scared the daylights out of me. I just automatically 
blurted out a question: What are you saying? 

The official cleared his throat and said slowly: We want to notify 
you that your son, Wu Guofeng, has died. 

My mind went blank. I could hear myself saying: Can't be true, 
can’t be true. 

The official answered in a stern tone: We just received a telegram 
from the authorities in Beijing. Your son is dead. 

My body slumped to the floor, like a soft noodle. I tried to support 
myself against the chair: What, what telegram? Could you give me 
some more details? 

The official said bluntly: We don't know any details. We have 
decided to purchase for you two train tickets. The deputy Party secre- 
tary will accompany you to Beijing to handle the cremation and help 
bring your son’s ashes home. 

I said: OK. Then, I began to shake uncontrollably, which was fol- 
lowed by cold sweats. 1 tried to stand up, but collapsed. Two people 
helped me to my chair. I rested a few minutes and then struggled to 
stand up and leave. One guy came over to assist me. I pushed him 
away, saying: Don’t grab me like this. It’s not like I'm going to the exe- 
cution ground. I can manage myself. 

I wobbled across the street and headed home. Everything seemed 
so unreal, the people, the traffic ... I didn’t know how I got home. I 
stood by the wall, tears and sweat running down my face like rainwater. 
My wife kept shaking my arm and asking what had happened. I started 

The Tiananmen Father 


to waii. She asked again: Old man, what happened? I clenched my 
teeth and yelled with all my strength: Guofeng is dead. 

The next thing I knew, my wife fell to the floor and passed out. No 
matter how hard 1 tried shaking her, she didn’t respond. She lay in bed 
unconscious for almost two days. When she came to, she just cried and 
cried, refusing to take water or food. She kept murmuring: Guofeng, 
how could you leave us like this? 

On the morning of June 9, the local government delivered two train 
tickets to my house. The deputy Party secretary, who was supposed to 
accompany us, never showed up. 

liao: Did he change his mind? 

wu: Local officials here were nervous about my son’s death. Nobody 
wanted to be involved for fear of losing their jobs. So the deputy Party 
secretary bowed out at the last minute. 

liao. Let me interrupt one second. Didnt you say you received a 
telegram from Guofeng on May 31? When he didnt come home right 
away, did you have any premonition that something had gone wrong? 

wu: Our only source of news was from TV. After June 4, all the TV chan- 
nels began to broadcast the same tapes provided by the Central Televi- 
sion Station, saying that the army had imposed martial law to keep 
order and had successfully ended the counterrevolutionary riot. Who 
would have thought the People’s Liberation Army could kill its own cit- 
izens? 1 naively thought that the government would arrest a number of 
student leaders as scapegoats. That was it. If Guofeng had the bad luck 
to get arrested, he would get some disciplinary action. After all, he was 
just a kid. Even if they threw him in jail or a labor camp for a couple of 
years, it wouldnt be a big deal. We had witnessed persecution before 
and there was nothing to be ashamed of. 

liao: The whole world saw the tapes of the bloody crackdown. The Chi- 
nese were the last ones to learn the truth. 

wu: Xinjing is a small town. The Communist Party did a good job of 
blocking news. We didn’t know anything about the killings. 



liao: Didn’t any of his classmates from Beijing contact you about 
Guofeng's death? 

wu: In the evening of June 8, right after I got home from the government 
office, we received a telegram from Xuzhou city, Jiangsu Province. It 
was sent by a relative’s daughter. She was one year older than Guofeng 
and studied at the Beijing Second Foreign Languages Institute. She 
heard about Guofeng’s death on June 4. But, at that time, the army had 
occupied the post office. It was also risky to send a telegram like that. 
So she and another student from Xinjing left Beijing on a train and 
arrived in Xuzhou. She sent the telegram from there. 

To keep the story short, my wife and I left Chengdu for Beijing on 
the afternoon of June 9. We were overcome with grief and hadn’t eaten 
for two days. We simply carried some water. After we arrived in Beijing, 
a woman, Comrade Zhang, met us at the station. She was the deputy 
Party secretary of Guofeng's department. After we exchanged greet- 
ings, silence fell. She put us up at the university guesthouse and said: 
Get some rest. We’ll talk tomorrow. 

The next morning, the department Party secretary briefed us on the 
situation surrounding Guofeng’s death: on the night of June 3, univer- 
sity officials went from door to door, warning students not to leave cam- 
pus because the army had already moved into the city. As an exception, 
students were allowed to play cards or mah-jongg if they wanted to. On 
that night, Guofeng had broken his ankle and was limping around in 
the dorm. Fie promised that he would stay in. However, after university 
officials left, Guofeng grabbed his camera and snuck out with one of 
his classmates. They rode their bikes and rushed out onto the street. 

It was then that I found out about the camera. Starting from the 
death of Hu Yaobang, he had taken hundreds of pictures of the student 
protests. I found piles of pictures and undeveloped rolls of him under 
his pillow. 

liao: Was he in Tiananmen Square that night? 

wu: No. But as you probably remember, the protest movement lost 
momentum in late May. While most of the students in Beijing had 
returned to campus, thousands more from outside Beijing poured in 
and took up the spots in Tiananmen Square. On the night of June 3, 
when the government sent troops to Beijing, many residents and stu- 

The Tiananmen Father 


dents came out again to rally support. My son and his buddy, a Mr. Li, 
left campus and soon they lost each other in the crowd. Li said he saw 
a large number of soldiers shooting at residents. He was so scared. He 
ducked into a small alley. Eventually, he found his way back to campus. 
But Guofeng never returned. 

liao: Where exactly was he killed? 

wu: Somewhere near Xidan, west of Tiananmen Square. The soldiers 
and tanks marched along Chang-an Boulevard, which leads to Tianan- 
men Square. They would shoot at residents who were taking pictures, 
shouting slogans, throwing rocks, or trying to set up roadblocks. Since 
Guofeng was carrying a camera, he was a prime target. They shot him 
on the spot. His bicycle was crushed by a tank. After those butchers 
marched away, some residents stepped out and carried him to a nearby 
hospital that was affiliated with the Department of Post and Tele- 

When I saw Guofeng s body, I begged the school authorities repeat- 
edly to allow me to take him back to Xinjing. 1 had put the Party secre- 
tary in a difficult situation because the Party Central Committee 
strictly ordered that all victims be cremated right away. We told him 
that Guofeng’s grandparents, his brother and sister needed to say good- 
bye to him. They still wouldn’t budge. Eventually, I asked if I could 
take some pictures so I could show them to the rest of my family. The 
Party secretary had a meeting and then granted my wish, on condition 
that I keep those pictures confidential. He made me promise not to use 
the pictures to tarnish the image of our government. 

Look at these pictures: He was covered with blood. The hole in his 
right chest was the fatal wound. Apparently he was struck by several 
bullets. Look at the holes in his shoulder, his arm and ribs. There is a 
cut here on his lower abdomen. The knife or bayonet was stabbed in 
and then slashed all the way down here. The cut is about seven or eight 
centimeters long. All his intestines were cut into pieces. A doctor who 
didnt want to disclose his name saw the picture. According to his 
analysis, the solider or soldiers had probably shot Guofeng several 
times. When they saw that the bullets hadnt killed Guofeng, one sol- 
dier pulled out his bayonet and stabbed him. I found two deep cuts on 
both of Guofeng s hands. He must have experienced excruciating pain 
and instinctively grabbed the bayonet . . . 



liao: While you were in Beijing, did you talk with any of his classmates? 

wu: Yes. They gave me some information but everyone was nervous. In 
that week, the top student leaders were put on the government’s most- 
wanted list. Some had been arrested. The rest of the student partici- 
pants were forced to attend political study sessions. They had to pledge 
loyalty to the Party and denounce the movement as a counterrevolu- 
tionary riot. During my stay, the university authorities assigned four 
students to accompany us. They were nice and took turns consoling us 
with kind words. On June 12, my wife and I went to the morgue inside 
the hospital. A staff member washed the blood off his body and put 
some new clothes on it. Based on the tradition in my hometown, we 
wrapped his body around with a layer of white linen that we had 
brought with us. 

liao: What was its significance? 

wu: The white linen symbolized his purity. Even though Wu Guofeng 
was not married and didn't have children to carry on the family name, 
he was considered a dutiful son. On June 13, we held a wake at the hos- 
pital's memorial hall. His body was laid on a platform in the middle. 
Several of Guofeng’s former classmates, friends, and even his teachers 
came. They walked around the body in tears. Nobody dared to say any- 
thing. After the wake, his friends helped us move the body to the 
Babaoshan Crematorium. 

During that whole week, we were told the crematorium was abnor- 
mally busy. Bodies were being sent in nonstop. One guy working there 
said he had to work three shifts. When we got there, there was a long 
line. But the guy told us we didn’t have to wait in line because there 
was a special order from the Party, spying that the bodies of college stu- 
dents were on the priority list. 1 guess the government didn’t want the 
bodies of innocent students lying around. They could easily arouse 
sympathy from the public and contradict its statement that no students 
had been killed. So we were moved out of the line and through a back 
door. At the registration desk, an older man behind the window was 
busy writing. When I handed him Guofeng’s papers, he didn’t even 
raise his head and began to copy information. I was worried that he 
might make a mistake. So 1 said: Sir, Sir! Do you have any questions? 

The Tiananmen Father 


He waved his hands impatiently and said: Just stop pestering me, OK? 
I haven t slept for two days. I don't even have time to take a shit. Don’t 
worry. I won t mess up. After the registration, we went to buy a wooden 
box to hold C.uofengs ashes. Guess what? The boxes were gone pretty 
fast. As my wife and I were discussing whether to pick a dragon design, 
a couple more were snatched by eager customers. Seeing that, we 
stopped our discussion and grabbed one right away and paid for it. Just 
to show you how weird it was. 

liao. Despite the hectic situation at the crematorium, the government 
media still blasted out announcements denying that there had been 
any killings. 

wu: Anyhow, we waited for several hours before we got the ashes. On 
June 16, we got on the train and returned to Xinjing on June 18. We set 
up a wake at our house, with Guofeng's picture and ash box on an altar. 
We also set up a memorial tent on the street. Relatives and friends 
came from all over to offer their condolences. On the fourth day, the 
township government sent an official over, asking me to stop the wake 
and disassemble everything. When I refused, he said to me: In the next 
two days, many village officials will be in town to hear important 
announcements by Deng Xiaoping and the Central Party Committee 
on the crackdown. Those hicks dont know shit about what s going on 
in Beijing. But when they are in town I don’t want them to see the 
memorial tent. Your sons death contradicts what is contained in the 
official announcement. It could be a bad influence on those hicks. I 
know you are quite stubborn. It will get you into more trouble if you 
disobey the order. 1 thought about his words for a few minutes and 
then offered a compromise. 1 decided to dismantle the tent on the 
street, but insisted on keeping the memorial stuff intact at my own 
house. I knew many of Guofengs high school friends were returning 
home for the summer holidays and would want to come visit. The 
township government agreed. 

After the wake, I didn't bury his ashes. I kept the box at my own 
house. 1 believed that unless the verdict on June 4 was reversed, his 
spirit wouldnt rest in peace. But in 2002, Guofeng’s little brother also 
died. Out of despair, I buried them together on the top of a mountain 



liao: How did his younger brother die? 

wu: His brother, the youngest in the family, was very considerate and 
thoughtful. After his elder brother, the future pillar of the family, died, 
he began to shoulder the responsibility of taking care of the whole fam- 
ily. He rose early and worked long hours to make money. He thought 
that if the family’s financial situation was improved, the pain of losing 
his elder brother could be eased. Who could have known that the God 
in heaven was not on his side? Long hours of working damaged his 
health. Soon, he was diagnosed with uremia. I cobbled together all our 
savings and the money collected by Professor Ding from people in the 
U.S. to pay for his hospital bills. In the end, we still couldn't save him. 

Guofeng was the hope of several generations in the family. He was 
gone. So was his brother. It was just too devastating. Guofeng's 
grandma had high blood pressure. When she heard about Guofeng's 
death, she had a stroke and was paralyzed. She lay in bed for many 
years and died in 2002. His grandpa used to be very healthy. He was 
nine months shy of his ninetieth birthday when he heard about 
Guofengs death. He couldn't pull himself out of the pain. He tried to 
commit suicide twice. The second time, he cut an artery on his neck 
and there was blood everywhere. Luckily, I discovered it and called the 
doctor. He was saved. While in the hospital, he deliberately fell to the 
floor and broke his collarbones. Two weeks later, he died. 

In 2002 alone, my family held three funerals. At the moment, my 
daughter has been laid off from a state-run factory. She has to raise two 
kids. Life is very hard. After my youngest son died, his wife, who is 
from a village nearby, went back to her parents and dumped her four- 
year-old daughter on us. Guofeng’s mother hurt her head and suffered 
a serious concussion after she passed out at Guofeng’s funeral in 1989. 
She can only do some simple house chores now. 

liao: You are the only healthy person in the family. 

wu: Not really. I’m suffering from kidney cancer. Not long after my 
youngest son became sick with uremia in 2002, I noticed a small 
growth on my waist. I didn't do anything about it because all of our 
attention was on my younger son. A year later, the growth was getting 
bigger. I began to see blood in my urine. The doctors recommended 

The Tiananmen Father 


surgery. My right kidney was removed. I feel much better now. I just 
can t lift heavy stuff. I can't afford expensive Western medicine. So I 
simply take some cheap herbs. The surgery cost my family a fortune. 
Unless we are really desperate, I seldom call Professor Ding because 
she’s very busy. Each time she gets a call from us, she knows that we 
need help. It’s kind of embarrassing. 

liao: How did you get in touch with Professor Ding and the Tiananmen 

wu: After Guofeng’s death, I bought a shortwave radio so we could listen 
to overseas radio broadcasts. One day, I heard on the radio that Ding 
Zilin, a professor at Guofeng’s university, had lost her son. She was try- 
ing to contact all the victims' families and seek justice for those who 
were killed on June 4. I tried but wasn't able to establish contact. Sev- 
eral years ago, Professor Ding’s husband met a student at a party. The 
student grew up in Xinjing and told him about my son. So Professor 
Ding wrote us a letter, but misspelled my name. Luckily, with help 
from heaven, a friend working at the post office got hold of the letter. 
He delivered it to us. It was such a blessing for us to be finally in touch 
with Professor Ding. She said she had been trying to track us down for 
eight years. 

liao. Does Professor Ding know whats going on with your family now? 

wu: Our life is too hard right now. We live on two hundred yuan a 
month. We have to raise our granddaughter and support her education. 
She is our only hope. She is the only thing left after the loss of my two 
sons. Despite this, we don’t want to bother Professor Ding. It doesn’t 
matter if we live or die. Professor Ding has to live. She is the one who 
helps keep the issue alive. It’s been sixteen years since the June 4 mas- 
sacre happened. Sooner or later, justice will be done. We probably 
wont live long enough to see the day. Whatever happens, we can’t let 
the Communist Party get away with the bloody debt owed to families 
like mine. 


One morning in December 2004, two neatly dressed women 
showed up at my door. Both of them seemed to he in their late 
fifties and looked like peasants from the nearby suburbs. One 
woman glanced around and whispered, We are not beggars. We 
are Falun Gong practitioners. The words “Falun Gong” stunned 
me. In the summer of 1999, after thousands of practitioners had 
staged a silent protest in Beijing against unfair treatment, the 
Party leadership saw the group as a threat to Communist rule, 
declared it an evil cult, and launched a massive campaign to 
eliminate Falun Gong in China. 

Right at that moment, two “evil cult” members seemed 
to have arrived from another world. Each woman was carry- 
ing a bag that I found out later on contained stacks of Falun 
Gong literature. It took me a few seconds to compose myself. 
I had a daring idea. I invited them in, fumbled around for 
a notebook, and decided to interview Chen, one of the two 

A week later, I heard another knock on the door. I looked 
through the peephole and saw two policemen outside. Worry- 
ing that the police were coming to get me for interviewing 
those Falun Gong members, I grabbed my stuff and jumped 
out my third-floor apartment window. Miraculously, I suffered 
only a few minor bruises. After that incident, I was on the 
run for four months and then moved to a small southwestern 

liao yiwu : Before I let you in, could you check to see if anyone is tailing 

chen: I think we are safe. I can normally sense it when I'm tailed. 

liao: Good. Have a seat. 

23 1 

The Falun Gong Practitioner 

chen: Thanks for being open-minded enough to let us in. Nowadays, 
the government's brainwashing campaign and the threat tactics have 
made many people scared of being associated with Falun Gong. They 
become very nervous when they see a practitioner outside their door. 
Some even dial no to call the police. I don’t blame them. Thousands of 
practitioners have been locked up and tortured to death. Who wouldn’t 
be afraid? But people need to find out the truth about us. We are not a 
cult. The Communist Party is a true cult. No matter how the govern- 
ment tries to distort the truth by slandering and persecuting us, we 
believe truth will eventually prevail. 

liao: How did you get started in Falun Gong? 

chen: I’m a retired worker from a state enterprise in Flesheng Town- 
ship, Wenjiang County. 1 was a Communist Party member for thirty 
years. After 1 retired, I lived on a meager pension, most of which was 
spent on medicine. 1 became ill very easily. 1 took so much medicine 
that my body became resistant to treatment. Each time I was hospi- 
talized, the doctor would simply prescribe stronger and stronger 
medicine. I felt so helpless, thinking that I was going to die any minute. 

On a sunny April day in 1999, I bumped into Liu, a former acquain- 
tance of mine, on the street. I hadn't seen Liu for a long time and 
hardly recognized him. He used to be as sick and feeble as I was, with 
a hunchback. That day, he looked so different, healthy and younger. 1 
was intrigued and stopped to chat with him. Liu told me he was prac- 
ticing Falun Gong. I had read about it in a health magazine. He told me 
that Falun Gong combines Buddhist and Taoist meditation and exer- 
cises and was founded by Li Hongzhi. Practitioners referred to Li as Li 
Laoshi or Teacher Li. Liu also said that there were hundreds and thou- 
sands of followers inside China. 

I was in a pretty desperate situation at that time. I would try any- 
thing that promised a cure for my illnesses. So when he told me about 
it, I said to myself: 1 will try it. What do I have to lose? So I borrowed a 
book of Teacher Li's teachings and joined a practicing group in a neigh- 
borhood not far from me. Every morning or evening, a large group of 
retired folks like me would gather in the courtyard, meditating and 
practicing Falun Gong. The movements are a little like those of tai chi. 
After the exercises, we sat together and read Teacher Li’s book, which 
tells us how to cultivate our mind and be a good person. 


2 3 2 

Soon, I was so into it. I practiced many hours a day, and after three 
months, I began to feel the difference. So I went to the doctor and did 
some testing. The result showed dramatic improvement in my kidney 
and uremia. My arthritis was also getting better. As time went by, many 
of my illnesses disappeared. 

liao: That was very dramatic and miraculous. 

chen: Well, its true. The only illness left was my asthma. 

liao: Personally, I don’t care whether it’s scientifically proven or not. But 
when people practice together, it’s like joining a therapy group. They 
can socialize, exercise, and talk about their problems. Depression and 
family spats will all be gone. The government can save lots of money on 
health-care costs. It’s much better than sitting around a table playing 
mah-jongg and gambling, which seems to be the national pastime. 

chen: You are absolutely right. After I benefited from Falun Gong, I also 
persuaded more of my neighbors to join our group. Everybody was 
happy — I mean the kind of happiness arising from our hearts, free of 
worries about trivial stuff. 

On July 22, 1999, my neighbors and I were suddenly told to attend 
a meeting. At the meeting, a local official read an editorial from the 
Party newspaper, People's Daily. The editorial declared Falun Gong a 
cult and illegal organization, and urged all Party members to give it up. 
Believe it or not, 1 wasnt too shocked. My generation went through 
many big and small political campaigns. We all knew that the Party was 
capricious as a moody bitch. So we simply rolled our eyes and ignored 
the ban. Since we were not allowed to practice as a group in public, we 
simply did it at home. 

Then the local government rounded up many people who refused 
to comply and put them in an auditorium. They were forced to read 
government propaganda materials and denounce Falun Gong publicly. 
The provincial government assigned a quota to each local public secu- 
rity bureau or government agency, ordering them to reform Falun Gong 
members. If a certain official exceeded the quota, he or she would be 
awarded a cash prize. 

But later on, as more and more people refused to give it up, the 

2 33 

The Falun Gong Practitioner 

actions of the government became frenetic. Local police began to 
search our homes for Falun Gong materials and treated each practi- 
tioner like a criminal. If one person was caught practicing, his or her 
whole family would he blamed and punished. After going through the 
Cultural Revolution, I couldn't believe a similar political campaign 
could be happening in China again. I decided to do something about it. 

On January 15, 2000, a fellow practitioner and I traveled to Beijing 
to petition the government to stop the insanity. On the train, I was 
going through the petition in my mind again and again. I simply wanted 
to use my experience to tell the senior leaders in Beijing that banning 
Falun Gong was a mistake. That was it. I wasn't going to make trouble. 
After about twenty hours on the train, we finally arrived. Instead of get- 
ting food and finding a hotel, we simply walked directly to Tiananmen 
Square, which was about thirty minutes away from the train station. I 
was just eager to find the Citizens’ Petition Office and tell my story. 
Before I reached the square, two policemen stopped us: Are you from 
out of town? When we said yes, they became suspicious and asked 
another question: Are you members of the Falun Gong group? We nod- 
ded our heads. Before we knew it, the two policemen swooped down on 
us, forced our hands behind our back, and dragged us into a police car. 
A couple of people had already been tied up there. We were taken to a 
branch of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Department near the 
Temple of Fleaven. After two rounds of interrogation, police contacted 
authorities in Sichuan. Two days later, I was sent back home. Before my 
release, they confiscated six hundred yuan in cash from me. I over- 
heard a certain Mr. Feng at the police station talking to an official who 
came to pick me up from Sichuan: Take this money as compensa- 
tion for traveling all the way up here to get this idiot. When I reached 
home, the local police detained me in a small dark room for seventeen 

liao: 1 heard people jokingly say that the Party had posted plainclothes 
policemen every five feet in Tiananmen Square because many Falun 
Gong petitioners like you displayed banners and practiced there in 
defiance of the government ban. Couldn’t you have been a little more 
wary and told a little lie when police questioned you? 

chen: Practitioners don’t tell lies because it’s a sin. 


2 34 

liao: I see. 

chen: Not long after I was released from the detention center, three 
other practitioners in my neighborhood followed my example and trav- 
eled to Beijing to petition the government. Local public security offi- 
cials suspected that I was the instigator. They came to my house, 
handcuffed me, and sent me to the detention center for the second 
time. I was locked up for another fifteen days. When I got home, I 
found a government seal on my apartment door. They forced me to 
move to a small, damp, and stinky shack. I was under their constant 
watch. Soon, the government stopped issuing my monthly retirement 
money. Instead, I was only given 120 yuan [US$15] a month to cover my 
basic necessities. They made my life very difficult, but I wasn’t afraid. I 
still refused to denounce Falun Gong. Then, the government reduced 
my monthly pension from 120 yuan to 50 yuan, which was not even 
enough to buy a monthly supply of plain rice. 

The more defiant I was, the more brutal and desperate the public 
security officials became. On July 1, 2000, I was ordered to show up at 
the township Party secretary’s office for interrogation. The moment I 
walked in, Deputy Party Secretary Huang grabbed my coat and slapped 
me in the face again and again. That was still not enough to release his 
anger. He took a breath, balled his fist, and started to punch my face. 
In a few minutes, my face puffed up, covered with blood. My head was 
spinning and I fell to the floor. He then kicked my head with his 
pointed leather shoes. After that, I was dragged out of his office into 
the courtyard. Soon, a crowd gathered around me, with people kicking 
me like a soccer ball. I instinctively rolled around, covering my head, 
but had no place to escape. 

liao: What prompted those officials to engage in such brutality? 

chen. First, they were angry because I went to Beijing, it was a loss of 
face for local officials. Second, President Jiang and other senior offi- 
cials had pressured local governments to brainwash and convert Falun 
Gong members. Failure to convert Falun Gong members could result 
in the loss of jobs for local officials. 

liao: Did anyone step forward to stop the beating? 

2 35 

The Falun Gong Practitioner 

chen: No. Someone in the crowd even shouted: Come on and look! 
Another Falun Gong is getting beaten up. Hey, kick her some more. 

liao: It's unimaginable. It was a lawless mob. 

chen: I slipped in and out of consciousness, and could hardly see or feel 
anything. The buildings seemed to be swirling around me. I don’t know 
how long the beating lasted. Then I heard an official say that it would 
give the township government a bad image if I was beaten to death in 
front of the government building. So a couple of guys pulled me by the 
legs and dragged me inside a meeting room. I gradually regained con- 
sciousness. I saw many people were peeping through the window. 
Someone shouted: Beat her, beat her. Emboldened by the shouts of the 
crowd, Deputy Party Secretary Huang, Deputy Mayors Zhang and 
Huang [no relation to the deputy Party secretary] began to take turns 
beating me. They forced me into a kneeling position, with my hands 
tied behind my back. They whipped me on the back and on my bare 
feet with copper wire. 

liao: Were you still conscious during those beatings inside the meeting 

chen: I was in and out. Deputy Party Secretary Huang threatened me 
by saying: You are the enemy of the people. I will not take responsibil- 
ity if I beat you to death. 

At seven o clock that night, I awoke and found myself lying on the 
floor of my house. I had bruises all over my body. It was even painful to 
move my arms. Then I heard my seventy-year-old mother sobbing in 
another room. 

A couple of days later, police ransacked my mother’s house and 
took away all her valuable possessions, including a TV set, some 
antique coins, her clothes and bedding. Then they put us, Mother and 
me, on a truck, and drove us to a remote village to receive reeducation. 
In the words of government officials, sending me to a faraway place 
would prevent me from ruining the image of the township government. 

liao: How could they be so ruthless? 


CHEN: That was just the beginning. My mother and I lived in that village 
for about five months. I gradually recovered from the beatings. In the 
fall of 2001, before the moon festival, I teamed up with two Falun Gong 
practitioners in the village and painted a slogan, “Falun Gong Is Good,” 
on the wall of a Buddhist temple. We were caught by a monk. Worrying 
that he could get blamed for the slogan, he called the police. Once 
again, we were detained inside a police station near the village. During 
the interrogation, I refused to tell the police my name and address 
because 1 was afraid of implicating my mother again. So the police 
locked me up in a jail with a bunch of criminals. To kill time there, I 
put two hands together, palm to palm, and began to do meditation. Two 
fellow prisoners, who had been instructed by the guards to keep an eye 
on me, immediately grabbed my hair. They yelled: Help, help, the crazy 
Falun Gong woman is conducting illegal activities again. Soon, one 
guard showed up and whipped me with a leather belt. He then ordered 
my hands and feet shackled. After that, he brought a two-piece wooden 
board with a hole in the middle, put my head through the hole, and 
locked the wooden board around my neck. Those shackles and the 
wooden board were specifically designed for prisoners who are suicidal 
or who were on death row. 

For over ten days, I couldn't move. I couldn't even use the toilet on 
my own. After they finally removed the shackles, my neck, wrist, and 
ankles were abscessed. The lower part of my body was all swollen. It 
took another four months for the wounds to heal. 

On April 25, 2002, while visiting a Falun Gong practitioner at a vil- 
lage near Chengdu, I was once again arrested by public security. After 
two months of detention, they put me on trial and sentenced me to two 
years in jail. On July 3 of that year, they transferred me from the deten- 
tion center to an all-women prison outside Chengdu. Each prisoner 
was supposed to have a health checkup before being admitted. 
Because of the many beatings I had suffered at the hands of the police, 

I was in terrible shape. The prison refused to accept me. They worried 
that 1 could die during my incarceration. They didn't want to take any 
responsibility. So I was sent back to Hesheng Township, my home- 

liao: All those beatings and tortures didn’t do much to change your 

2 37 

The Falun Gong Practitioner 

chen: When local police and township government officials heard 
about my return, they treated me as if I were a devil who was out to 
ruin their careers. They spent a whole night figuring out ways to control 
me. Finally, they reached a collective decision: Ms. Chen's obsession 
with Falun Gong has caused her to lose her mind. She is suffering from 
grave mental illnesses. On July 5, they tied me up with ropes, put me 
on a truck, and sent me to the Wanchun Mental Hospital. 

liao: Did the doctor offer a diagnosis before your forced hospitalization? 

chen: The township Party secretary said. The decision of the Commu- 
nist Party serves as the most authentic diagnosis. Under pressure from 
local officials, the doctors put me inside a mental ward with thick iron 
doors. When the door clanked shut, I found myself in Ward A, which 
was specifically furnished for mental patients — iron bed, iron chairs, 
and an iron desk. The window was fitted with iron bars. I was sur- 
rounded by mentally ill patients, some staring blankly at the ceiling or 
shaking uncontrollably. Others were drooling or making weird noises, 
laughing or crying. I was so scared, and I begged the police chief who 
escorted me there to let me go home. He gave me the brush-off with a 
cold laugh: You are our VIP. We put you in this resort so you can relax 
and enjoy life. Do you know that it cost us 3,700 yuan [US$462] to put 
you up here? But it’s worth it. 

I knelt down, grabbed his leg, and begged: There is nothing wrong 
with my mind. He kicked me away and said: That’s what they all say. 
All the people you see over here think they are normal. Oh well, go 
practice Falun Gong if you want. I heard there is another crazy Falun 
Gong member in this ward. She is a former government employee and 
her name is Yang. Maybe you and Yang can keep each other company. 

After the police chief left, the nurses tied me up in bed for a whole 
night. The next morning, when the doctor saw that I was pretty obedi- 
ent, they untied me and allowed me to walk around freely. I began to 
ask about Yang. On the second night, when the nurses were chatting 
after supper, I snuck out of my room and located Yang. She was thin as 
a stick, almost like a shadow. I struck up a conversation with her, and 
found out that she had been locked up in the hospital for over a year. 
She said she had long since given up Falun Gong. All day long, she sim- 
ply imitated the behavior of those mentally ill patients. She had to act 


out crazily and aggressively, because if she didn’t, some patients would 
come grab her hair, choke her, ride on top of her, and pee over her body. 
1 reproached her: If you act like this all the time, it becomes part of you 
and you could become crazy like those people. She told me that she 
had tried to practice Falun Gong when she was thrown in there, but 
the nurses would stop her, and force her to watch the government 
propaganda video that condemned Falun Gong. 

I felt so sorry for her, and told her about the stuff that friends had 
got from the Falun Gong Web sites overseas. I told her that thousands 
of people practice Falun Gong freely in Western countries and that the 
international community had condemned China for the crackdown. 
We chatted for a long time, and before I left we made a pact to resume 
our practice. 

The next day, we got together inside my room and began to do the 
slow Falun Gong movements. One nurse found out and notified Dr. 
Deng, head of the psychiatric ward. He immediately ordered the 
guards to carry us to the treatment room for electric shock. They tied 
Yang onto the bed first, and then turned on the switch. Her body began 
to twitch violently, and she was screaming, “Save me, Teacher Li." Her 
loud screams were like something coming out of a tortured animal. I 
couldn't bear to watch her suffer. So I bent my head and closed my 
eyes. Dr. Deng grabbed my hair and poked his knee against my back, 
forcing me to watch and receive what he called “education." After more 
violent spasms, Yang’s body weakened, her screaming became inaudi- 
ble, and her skin turned from pale to blue. I lost control, and my body 
began to shake. I cried, How can you treat people like this? You should 
be condemned to hell. Dr. Deng dragged me out of the treatment room 
by the hair and said: If you continue to practice, you'll be next. 

After that scary electric shock episode, the nurses put us in segre- 
gated areas, with twenty-four-hour supervision. We were locked up in a 
storage room next to the toilet. All night long, we were covered with 
mosquitoes. The next day, we were not given our food. Instead, the 
nurses put us on IV. Since our arms and legs were tied to the bed and 
couldn't move, the IV drops dripped very fast. One morning, the nurses 
injected several bottles of unknown liquid into our veins. I whispered 
to Yang: I don t know what kind of IV drips they are giving us! Yang 
replied: Don’t you think they are injecting us with meds that will dam- 
age our brain? These people are animals and they can do anything to 

2 39 

The Falun Gong Practitioner 

destroy us. Her words made me really nervous. It reminded me of a 
Japanese movie I had seen. The hero in the movie was fed drugs that 
damaged his brain. He became a zombie and jumped from a high 
building without knowing it. Then his enemies claimed that he had 
committed suicide. 

The thought of that movie gave me the creeps. I began to scream, 
struggling to break free from the IV tubes. One nurse rushed in, 
pinned me down, and tightened the ropes around my legs and arms. 
The next day, they started to shove pills down our throats, saying that 
the medicine would cure us of our disobedience. I had no idea what 
those pills were. During the first several days, I refused to open my 
mouth. The doctor simply asked several guards and male patients to 
force my mouth open with a metal clamp, and wash down the pills 
with hot water. I choked and would begin to cough and vomit. After I 
stopped coughing, they would force my mouth open and do it again. 
My tongue and throat were seriously burned while my head and my 
face had scratches all over. A week after I took the pills, I became 
sleepy all day long. I couldn t stop drooling and had no appetite for 
tood. Then I became too feeble to resist. When it was time for medi- 
cine, I would simply open my mouth voluntarily, swallow the pills like 
other patients did, and then doze off. 

liao: So they finally subdued you and turned you into a mentally ill 

chen: All I could feel was exhaustion; my eyelids were so heavy that I 
couldn’t keep them open. A month later, when the doctor reduced the 
dosage of my meds, 1 became easily irritable. Then the nurses trans- 
ferred us to a new place to make room for the real mental patients. 
They put me and Yang in a room, where the windows had been nailed 
shut and covered with wooden boards. The nurses even unhooked the 
electric bulb. Later on, we found out that we were actually next door to 
the morgue. 

I ended up staying in the mental hospital for iio days. Yang actually 
stayed there for one year longer. One day, the director of the local 
Woman s Federation, a pseudo-government agency, came to visit me in 
the hospital. I was brought to a meeting room where visitors and 
patients were separated by an iron fence. She first inquired about my 



living conditions and then tried to persuade me to abandon my belief in 
the cult. She said, Falun Gong has led to broken families, disgrace, 
and mental illness. I simply interrupted her by saying: I'm not mentally 
ill. I’m a normal person. I told her about how I was forced to take med- 
icine. The director asked me to promise her that 1 would change. In 
return, she would tell the doctor to stop the medicine. But I refused to 
make any promises. 

After the director of the Woman's Federation left, the doctor didn't 
stop the medicine, but he did reduce the dosage. At the same time, the 
director told the hospital to prohibit any visits from my relatives or 

LIAO: Why? 

CHEN: Because they were worried that my relatives would find out about 
how I was being treated, and share it with the public. One day, my sis- 
ter rode her bike for many miles to see me but she wasn’t allowed to 
come in. So she started to shout my name as loudly as she could. A 
patient heard her and came to get me. By the time I rushed to the door, 
the guard had already chased her away. 

liao: When did they discharge you from the hospital? 

chen: At the end of 2002. A police car came to pick me up at the hospi- 
tal and then sent me directly to a women’s reeducation camp. I had to 
go through another health checkup and didn't pass. Again, the camp 
authority didnt want to accept me. The police told them: If she dies, 
nobody is responsible. Finally, the camp reluctantly admitted me. 

liao: What happened later? 

chen: One day, while we were out working in the wheat field, I escaped. 
After the camp authorities found out about it, they didn't even bother 
to send anyone to catch me. I figured they were just happy to get rid of 
me so they didn t have to bear any responsibility if I died. 

Since I got out, Ive been able to come to Chengdu and reconnect 
with more Falun Gong members here. Whenever I have the opportu- 
nity, I will secretly distribute Falun Gong pamphlets to as many house- 


The Falun Gong Practitioner 

holds as I can. This morning, I walked for about twelve kilometers and 
dropped several hundred pamphlets inside residential buildings in the 
area. I still have some left and will finish these by the end of the day. 

liao. How long did you stay inside the reeducation camp? 

chen: I was sentenced to two years. I had two more months left before 
I escaped. 

liao: Why did you bother to run away? 

chen: I was worried they might change their mind and not let me go on 
my release date, on the grounds that I hadn't given up on my faith. 

liao. 1 used to think that if every Chinese followed the principles of 
truth, benevolence, and tolerance, as preached by Teacher Li, we 
would totally resign ourselves to oppression. The Communist Party 
could rule this country unopposed forever. I guess I’m wrong. 


Unlike thousands of Chinese who hire smugglers to help them 
escape to the West, the forty-four-year-old Li Yifeng takes a dif- 
ferent route. In the past several years, he has made several failed 
attempts to sneak across the border on his own, first to Myan- 
mar and then to Hong Kong. He said he was a horn border 

Our interview took place recently at a teahouse near the 
Fu River in Mianyang city, Sichuan. Li had just been released 
from a detention center in the southern city of Shenzhen. 

liao yiwu: Where did you get this adventurous spirit? 

li yifeng: I inherited the adventurous spirit from my father. My father 
was born in the late 1940s. He grew up in a small river town in the east- 
ern part of Sichuan. As a kid, he used to sit alone by the side of the river 
and watch boats come and go. My mother told me that he would con- 
stantly ask himself questions such as: What’s it like to be at the other 
end of the river? What’s it like at the other end of the earth? 

My father did very well in school and went to college. After gradu- 
ation, he was assigned a job at the provincial cultural department. That 
was the place where educated folks worked. But when those educated 
folks got together, they began to talk about strange and subversive 
ideas, such as democracy or escaping to a foreign land. No wonder 
Chairman Mao never trusted intellectuals and initiated one campaign 
after another to purge them from the Communist ranks. Anyhow, the 
idea of traveling to foreign countries stayed with my father. Since Chi- 
nese were not allowed to move freely at that time, he began to explore 
the possibilities of illegal border crossing. His first experience was in 
1962, when my mother was still pregnant with me. He left for the 
northwestern province of Xinjiang, home to the Uyghur and Kazakh 
ethnic groups. You probably would say that people were desperate to 

The Illegal Border Crosser 243 

leave China in 1962 because of the famine. 1 don’t think my father did 
it solely for that reason; he did it to satisfy his curiosity. After he arrived 
in Xinjiang, he picked up some odd jobs and waited for his opportunity. 
Eventually he moved to a small town which bordered the then Soviet 
Union, and started his cross-border adventure there. But luck wasn’t 
on his side. He was caught. When the Chinese border police interro- 
gated him, he pretended to be deaf and mute. The police mistakenly 
thought he was a member of the ethnic Kazakhs. They didn’t shoot him 
for fear of exacerbating ethnic tensions. Instead, they detained him for 
several months. Upon his release, he moved back to Sichuan. 

He then stayed with my mom for a few weeks until he became rest- 
less again. So one day he just disappeared. After he left, my mom 
moved in with her parents. Later on, my mom received a letter from 
him, saying that he was heading south to Shenzhen. In those days, 
Shenzhen was only a small fishing village bordering Hong Kong. Since 
the land border was heavily guarded, a local guide told him to sneak 
across via water. So my dad hid in the tall grass near the beach for a 
whole day. When night fell, he came out of the hiding place, jumped 
into the water and swam as fast as he could to the free world of Hong 
Kong. 1 hat crazy old man! After he had swum in the water for over a 
hundred meters, the guards detected him with the patrol lights. They 
began shooting at him. He got so scared he made his way back to the 
beach, where a group of border guards were waiting for him. They beat 
him and tied him up with a rope. Then he was arrested and sentenced 
to twenty years in jail. 

In the Mao era, China was isolated from the rest of the world. 
Sneaking out to a foreign country was considered a cardinal sin, a 
crime so serious most ordinary people would not even dare think about 
it. My dad was quite unusual. 

liao: What were the charges against him? 

li: They charged him with the crimes of betraying the motherland and 
engaging in counterrevolutionary activities. At the time of his arrest, I 
was still in my mother’s womb. She carried me to visit my dad in prison 
and brought divorce papers for him to sign. Sadly, that was the kind of 
family I was born into. Do you remember an American movie called 
Paris, Texas r It tells the story of a guy who was unable to remember his 



past. He decided to find Paris, a city in the state of Texas, where his 
parents had supposedly met and made love. Since he was probably 
conceived during that encounter, the man was under the illusion that 
locating Paris, Texas, would bring back the memories of his past. To 
him, the city symbolized the perfect place where good things hap- 
pened. So he abandoned his family and wandered around the country 
in search of that city. His journey was a precondition, a basic instinct 
and desire born from his blood. My father had such desires. So do I. 
The difference is that he paid a much heftier price. I'm lucky because 
things have changed. Nowadays, there are so many illegal border 
crossers. The government has problems stemming the trend. Penalties 
against us are not as harsh. 

liao: The motives you just listed aren't too convincing. As far as I know, 
most Chinese attempt to leave China for economic reasons. They want 
to go to countries like America to make money. A few of them do it for 
political reasons. I don t know anyone who escapes China out of the 
basic instinct of a wanderer. Do you realize you are betraying your 

Li: I always carry memories of my homeland in a bag: a couple of Chi- 
nese books, including a collection of Chinese poems, a Chinese dic- 
tionary, and pictures of some beautiful Chinese women. I understand 
the fact that if you have money, you can emigrate or travel to a foreign 
country via proper legal channels. But, sadly, I don't have money. Even 
if I did, I wouldnt want to go through various complicated channels or 
fill out all sorts of forms. I want to go wherever I want, and whenever 1 
want. Writer Ai Wu s Journey to the South serves as my textbook. In the 
book, he describes how he impulsively left China in the 1940s and jour- 
neyed to Myanmar. He didn’t tell anyone or go through any authorities. 
He just went like that. In my view, Ai Wu is the Jack Kerouac of China. 

liao: Are you saying that you went to Myanmar to follow the steps of 
Ai Wu? 

Li: Damn right. I picked Myanmar because of that book byAi Wu. Since 
Myanmar is a Buddhist country, I figured that people would be nicer 
than the Chinese. Most important, going to Myanmar is not that diffi- 

The Illegal Border Crosser 245 

cult. If you follow the China— Myanmar highway, which starts in a 
small town called Ruli in the southwestern province of Yunnan, you 
can easily reach the border town of Mangshi. So, on that particular 
trip, there were three of us: me posing as a journalist, another guy 
claiming to be an official from Wulong County, and the third one, a for- 
mer monk. So we put our money together and decided to go as a group. 
Through the former monk, we found a one-armed guide from Myan- 
mar. His name was Yeshan. He was a monk. His job was to help those 
who wanted to enter Myanmar for a fee. At over 1.8 meters, he stood 
tall among us, and his yellow kasaya glimmered in the hot sun. We fol- 
lowed him for three days and covered over a hundred kilometers of 
mountain road. Since we could only walk at night, we were exhausted. 

liao: When did this happen? 

li : That was in the summer of 1989. 

liao: That was right after the government crackdown on the pro- 
democracy movement in Beijing. Many student leaders were on the 
run. You didn t do it for political reasons, did you? 

li: Not me. I'm not sure about the other two. But I doubt it. I was plan- 
ning to find a job in Myanmar’s capital city of Yangon and then look for 
some business opportunities there. If that didn’t work out, my plan B 
was to join the triad in the Golden Triangle area. I wouldn’t have 
minded smuggling opium. The profit was huge. So I was really moti- 
vated. The first part of the trip went smoothly. We didn t encounter any 
soldiers on the way. Then, on the morning of the fourth day, Yeshan 
patted me on my shotilder and said in his broken Chinese: You already 
inside Myanmar now. My job done. Goodbye. We were stunned. You 
can t leave us like this, screamed the county official who reacted 
faster than the others. He grabbed the monk’s sleeve and said: All we 
see is this mountain. Heaven knows if this is Myanmar or not. 

The official was right. It was so quiet. We were standing on the 
edge of a horseshoe-shaped ridge. We could vaguely see a river in the 
distance through the waist-deep bushes and grass. There was no way to 
tell whether we had entered Myanmar or not. 

The three of us grabbed Yeshan and begged him not to leave us 


there. When the pleading didn’t work, I took out a pocketknife to 
threaten him. Yeshan became very angry with us. He swung that arm of 
his at me and pushed me to the ground. The knife flew right out of my 
hand. That guy knew martial arts and none of us was his match. After 
he kicked our butts, Yeshan tossed the water bottles and the raw rice to 
us, pointed at a river down the mountain, and said in that broken Chi- 
nese again, Follow river and you no get lost. Make sure stay away from 
the Maoist guerrillas. 

With those words, Yeshan walked away in big strides, his hcisaya fly- 
ing in the morning breeze like a sail. A couple of minutes later, he dis- 
appeared in the bushes. Things became so quiet. We got up and 
brushed the dirt from our pants. The “official” recommended that we 
go down the mountain at night, but both the former monk and 1 
protested. Since we had already seen some rice paddies and houses in 
the distance, I figured that we were far away from the border and 
should be safe from the Chinese border police. There was really no 
need to do the night walk again. 

After debating back and forth, 1 won. The three of us decided to 
walk on. We would go down the mountain at twenty meters apart. In 
this way, if one got into trouble, the others would have time to escape. 
I volunteered to go at the front. At the beginning, I could hear the foot- 
steps of my friends behind me. Gradually, I could only hear the sound 
of my own footsteps. So I turned around and called out softly: Hey, hey, 
are you there? There was no answer. I then crouched down and walked 
back a little bit, hoping to find my fellow team members. I looked 
around and couldn’t see anybody. Soon, exhaustion started to catch up 
with me. It was still early in the morning and not too hot. I lay down in 
the bushes. At first, I tried to stay awake. But soon I was sound asleep. 
At about noontime, I was awakened by the ants, which were huge in 
Myanmar. I jumped up and was sweating all over. The ants stuck to my 
neck like a bracelet. I smashed them with my palms, while continuing 
my way down. I was hoping to find a local who could help me out. 

liao: Do you know the local language? How would you communicate 
with the locals if you ran into one? 

li: People living in the border areas can normally speak a little Chinese 
because there were lots of cross-border trading activities going on. 

2 47 

The Illegal Border Crosser 

Also, in the late 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, many Red 
Guards crossed the border to support the rebel forces in Myanmar, 
with the intent of exporting Maos ideas and engaging in a worldwide 
Communist revolution. In other words, the locals were used to the 
presence of Chinese. I was told that locals wouldnt feel alarmed and 
call the border police if they saw a C hinese. Since the Chinese cur- 
rency was accepted in the area, one could easily move around without 

LIAO: Sounds like you had done some thorough research before the trip. 
Didn t you tell me that you took these risky adventures simply because 
\ ou preferred the lifestyle of a wanderer? But now you say you snuck 
across to be an opium smuggler. 

Li: Well, I think it's a combination of both. On the other hand, what’s 
wrong with leaving China for economic reasons? If a large number left 
China now, the Chinese population would be reduced and the govern- 
ment wouldnt have to shoulder a heavy burden of feeding that many 
people. If I were to make a policy recommendation to the central gov- 
ernment, I would suggest we cut a swath of land through Mongolia and 
Russia, and build a highway directly to Europe. After the highway is 
completed, there is no need to advertise it. People would leave the 
country in droves. 

liao. OK, OK, stop your grand ideas for a moment. Where were we just 

li. We were talking about walking in a jungle in Myanmar. Damn it, it 
was so scary because I couldn’t find a regular mountain path. So I 
crawled and stumbled around in the bushes. I then checked my watch 
and realized that six hours had already passed. If things had gone right, 

I should have been close to the foot of the mountain. But I looked 
around and couldn t see anything, not even the Myanmar River, which 
I was supposed to follow. I fumbled forward and found a hidden path 
among the thick bushes. I was overjoyed. So I took the path and kept 
walking. A few minutes later, I noticed that the surroundings looked 
very familiar. I soon realized that I had somehow walked a circle and 
came to the spot where I had started six hours earlier. 


As I was stuck there in the middle of the jungle, can you guess 
what I was thinking? The jungle reminded me of an old Chinese movie, 
Bells Ringing Inside the Mountain. The movie was about how the Chi- 
nese army fought gangsters and robbers in that region. I wish I could 
meet some gangsters on horses. 1 couldn’t see shit. Looking back, it 
was kind of strange for me to be thinking of an old movie that 1 had 
seen twenty years before. Oh well. 1 sat down and pondered my next 
move. Then I heard a deep human voice: “Freeze.” The sound sent cold 
shudders down my spine. My hair stood on end. 

liao: Was it in Chinese? 

Li: Yes, it was in standard Mandarin. I felt my head exploding. My poor 
legs suddenly lost control and flopped. I knelt on the ground. My body 
was trembling. About five minutes had passed, and I still hadn’t seen 
anybody coming to get me. So I slowly raised my head and tried to see 
what was going on. Then, I heard the same voice again: Raise your 
hands above your shoulders. Bend your head. Toss out your weapons. 

liao: You ran into the border police. 

Li: In a way, they acted like the border police, except their uniforms 
looked kind of shabby. Four guys stepped out from behind the trees. 
But don t laugh when I tell you this — I was so scared that 1 had peed in 
my pants. For the next several hours, my pants reeked strongly of urine. 
My captors covered my eyes with a black scarf, tied both of my hands 
in the front, and then dragged me along with a rope. One guy pushed a 
gun against my waist. I don’t know how far or how long I walked. When 
they finally removed the black scarf from my eyes, I found myself 
inside a mountain cave and surrounded by a group of men dressed in 
the Chinese military uniforms of the seventies. They stripped me and 
pushed me to the side of a table. A kerosene lamp was hanging from 
the ceiling, and you could hardly see anything beyond the interrogator 
who was sitting opposite me at the table. Everything was pitch-dark, 
very mysterious. Gradually, my eyes began to adjust to the darkness. 
The interrogator asked me: Your name? Age? Occupation? What are 
you doing here? Are you here to smuggle goods or for political reasons? 
How many partners do you have on this trip? I answered his questions 
one by one. 

The Illegal Border Crosser 249 

liao: Were you captured by the Chinese border police? 

Li: No. They were called the People’s Army, a guerrilla group affiliated 
with the Myanmar Communist Party. That group was very powerful in 
the 1960s and 70s. I heard they were divided into several military 
regions, with over ten thousand troops. The group occupied a large 
area in the China-Myanmar border region. The People’s Army is in 
decline now because the world has changed. The fate of the Khmer 
Rouge in the neighboring area had had a devastating impact on the 
Communist forces in Myanmar. 

liao: You got caught by the People's Army? You poor thing! 

Li: I had strayed and ended up in the guerrilla territories without even 
knowing it. Damn, such bad luck. The strangest thing was that the 
bearded interrogator was from my hometown, the city of Chongqing. 
Remember what I told you about the Red Guards early in the conver- 
sation ? That guy was a former Red Guard who had been sent down to 
work on a collective farm in Yunnan Province. In 1969, he escaped and 
crossed the border to Myanmar and joined the guerrilla forces. When 
he realized that he and I grew up in the same city, he began to loosen 
up and chat with me. He wanted to know about the changes happen- 
ing in Chongqing. He told me that he had been away for over twenty 
years, but still missed his hometown. I secretly felt relieved at this 
unexpected turn of events and started to shoot the breeze with him. I 
told him about China’s economic reforms, the students’ democracy 
movement, and the popularity of cars. 1 said: Nobody believes in Com- 
munism anymore. Everyone talks about money, money, and money. We 
both talked in Sichuan dialect, swapping stories and jokes about 
Chongqing. Sometimes, we laughed so hard that tears came down. 
Other soldiers in the cave looked at us, puzzled and confused. Then my 
interrogator ordered his soldiers to prepare dinner for us — four dishes 
and a jug of liquor. I soon became tipsy. The interrogator reminisced 
about his younger days in China, about his passion for the Communis- 
tic ideals, and about his goal of spreading Communism around the 
world. He told me that the majority of his former comrades had been 
killed in guerrilla wars against the Myanmar government. I was truly 
touched by his stories and asked if he was planning to return home 
someday. He answered: Everyone, including you, is running away from 



home. What's the point of going back? To a certain degree, I said he 
and I shared something in common. We both were idealists, and were 
pursuing adventure in a foreign country. He strongly disagreed: Your 
ideals are different from mine. You are doing it for yourself, but I’m 
pursuing a goal to help mankind. My comrades and 1 are the only true 
Chinese Communists who are shedding blood in a foreign land, with 
the hope of establishing another Communist society. You probably call 
us rare specimens, but we are fighting for a noble cause. 

As our conversation became more and more intimate, i began to 
broach the subject of having him release me. He sighed: We are fellow 
city men. Under normal circumstances, I would let you pass. Unfortu- 
nately, its too late. My commander has been informed of your arrest. 
He has notified the Chinese border police. His words jolted me wide 
awake. Like a snake falling into an icy river, I was shaking all over, 
struggling for my life. 

I slumped to the ground and knelt in front of him: I beg you to have 
mercy on me. If you can't set me free, why don’t you shoot me now? 
The government will do the same if you send me home. 

The interrogator pulled me up from the ground, and said: Cheer 
up, buddy! If they find out that you don’t have other political motives 
for crossing the border, you probably will get two years in jail. To tell 
you the truth, I’m now the head of the regiment here. I have to set a 
good example in carrying out orders from above. Otherwise, 1 would 
lose my credibility among my soldiers. 

liao: With words like that, I don’t think you can argue much. 

Li: Damn it. It was like a bad dream. After I woke up, I ended up in jail 
for two years. Look at my face now and you will notice that one side is 
more out of shape than the other. My chin is a little tilted. Those are 
souvenirs from my various border-crossing adventures. I got smacked 
and beaten up so many times. The pain and the excitement made me 
feel alive. Once, I was tied by a long rope to the back of a small tractor. 
My captors dragged me for many kilometers on a small mountain path. 
My clothes were shredded into strips, like a mop. While I was being 
pulled forward by the tractor, I thought of an American movie, in which 
the black slaves were tied to a wooden pole, waiting to be sold to 
another white owner. 

The Illegal Border Crosser 251 

The pursuit of freedom is the hardest thing in this world. In China, 
if you are dying ol hunger, nobody gives a damn. But when you try to 
move to a new place to find food for yourself and look for a change of 
lifestyle, someone will immediately pounce and arrest you. In places 
such as Europe, the U.S., and Australia, people claim they have democ- 
racy and freedom. But the governments there will not grant entry to 
you if you don't have money or if you don't qualify as a political refugee. 
No matter how many times you tell them that you love democracy and 
freedom, they still don’t give a damn. It’s so damn hypocritical. 

liao: Personally, I think Myanmar is a much worse country than China. 
Even if you had succeeded in crossing over there and had reached Yan- 
gon, you would have faced poverty just like you do here. It could be 
worse, don't you think? 

li: I have never been successful in getting over there. How would I know 
which is worse? A poet friend of mine once took the same path as I did. 
He got caught inside Myanmar because a local resident reported on 
him. He ended up in a Myanmar jail. Believe it or not, he was locked 
up in the same cell with a former leader of the Myanmar Communist 
Party. Within a year, he learned to speak English and Burmese, and 
obtained quite a lot of secrets of the Myanmar Communist Party. 
Those secrets were quite useless though. 

Anyhow, he became friends with that Communist leader. Then he 
was forgotten. The government never put him on trial and they just left 
him in jail forever. One day, he began to scream nonstop. Thank heav- 
ens he did that. Otherwise, he could be rotting in there. He cursed and 
screamed in Chinese, English, and Burmese. That screaming really 
changed his fate. Later on, both he and the Communist leader were 
released. The Communist guy helped him get a visa. He was exported 
to Europe as a laborer. I he last thing I heard was that he became a res- 
ident of Denmark. He is the luckiest border crosser I have ever heard of. 

liao: His story is like a chapter in the Arabian Nights. 

li. My own story is like a chapter from the Arabian Nightmares. But let 
me tell you, during peacetime, sneaking across the border is the most 
adventurous and stimulating thing to do. 



liao: Does it mean you are addicted to border crossing? 

Li: I have done it four or five times. The most dramatic experience was 
the one I just told you. All the others were pretty ordinary and they all 
ended in failure. Penalty for border crossing has been reduced a lot in 
recent years. As long as you don't mess around with officials during 
interrogation, they will normally force you to pay a fine. That's it. Since 
I didn’t have money to pay a fine, they would detain me for several 
months and then release me. 

There is one more trip that's worth mentioning. It was in 1997. 
Since Hong Kong was about to be returned to China, I assumed that 
the Hong Kong— China border wouldn't be as tightly patrolled as 
before. I paid some money to buy a fake ID, and went to Shenzhen, 
like my dad did. Instead of swimming across, I decided to check out 
the land route. I took a stroll on the famous commercial boulevard that 
divides Hong Kong and mainland China. I looked at the Hong Kong 
side. The tall buildings and busy shopping areas were so mesmerizing, 
drawing me like a huge magnet. Like a complete idiot, I began to walk 
toward the barbed wire that was put up in the middle erf the street to 
separate Hong Kong from the mainland. Two guards spotted me right 
away. They moved toward me with guns pointing. Without further 
thinking, I tossed my bag across to the other side of the street. The hag 
contained my fake ID and wallet. I thought the other side was Hong 
Kong territory and the mainland guard wouldn’t dare to cross over to 
pick it up. They came over and one pointed his gun at me, ordering me 
to stand still. Then the other guard walked over to the Hong Kong side 
through a small entrance, and picked up my bag as evidence of my 

liao: At least your bag managed to cross the border. 

Li: I told the guards: Hong Kong will be returned to China soon. It 
should be easier for Chinese to travel to Hong Kong. Why are you in 
such a rush to get me? They slapped me and told me to shut up. I was 
locked up in a detention center for two months. Luckily, they didn’t 
find out about my real identity. Otherwise, they could have sentenced 
me for fabricating an ID card. 

2 53 

The Illegal Border Crosser 

LIAO: You have just been released from a detention center in Shenzhen. 
Was it for another illegal border-crossing? 

li. 'tes. I did odd jobs in Shenzhen for several years and then tried to 
enter Hong Kong on a train not long ago. I was caught because of my 
fake passport. 

liao: You are hopeless. It must be in your genes. 


I met Tian Zhiguang on a cold November evening in 2002, 
near the front entrance to the Sichuan Provincial People’s 
Supreme Court on Wenwu Road. He was in Chengdu to file 
a petition with the court against the local Public Security 
Bureau for “ruining his life through illegal detention. ” Tian 
had run out of money and was begging on the street. I took him 
to a restaurant nearby and bought him a bowl of noodles. 

Over the meal, Tian told me he had just turned thirty- 
three. He was known among his fellow villagers as the “grave 
robber, ” even though he had never put his foot inside a grave. 

tian zhiguang: I remember a fortune-teller once telling me: “You come 
from a family that includes generations of peasants. You are predes- 
tined to be tied to the soil and to earn your money through hard labor. 
But should your calloused hand touch anything valuable, you are 
bound to get in trouble." As you can see, fortune is not in my destiny. 
It’s not like I don't want to make lots of money. I’m just not smart 
enough to handle wealth. 

liao yiwu: Tell me about your life. 

tian: My family lives in the Xijiashan No. 2 Village, which is under the 
jurisdiction of Jiangan County, near the city of Yibin. My village is 
pretty famous. During the Qing dynasty [1644-1911], a local scholar, 
named Xi, successfully passed the imperial examination and was pro- 
moted to be a mandarin. He bought a plot of land in an auspicious 
location and built a large mansion. A century later, the mansion 
remains well preserved. Because of the Xi mansion, the village has 
acquired a new name, the Xijiashan Rural Residence, and has attracted 
tourists from all over the country. Our village is also well-known for the 
cranes. Each year, thousands of white cranes migrate to the area and 
roam around. 

The Grave Rohher 255 

My family has a house in the northwestern corner of the village, 
near the foot of a mountain. Both my parents are still alive and I have 
three siblings. My elder brother is already married with kids. My 
younger brother and I now live at home. 

My bad luck started in 1993 after I had turned twenty-four. Accord- 
ing to the local tradition, it should have been the time for me to get 
married. My girlfriend and I had been dating for over a year. She 
wanted to marry me because my family was quite well off. We earned 
pretty good money by collecting and selling crane eggs. So, at the urg- 
ing of my girlfriend, I started preparing for our wedding. In the fall of 
that year, my family managed to raise five thousand yuan [US$625], 
and invited a local contractor and some craftsmen to add a new wing to 
our house. On the first day, my younger brother and I were assigned to 
work on the foundation by digging a hole in the ground and pouring 
concrete into it. Not long after we started, my brother accidentally hit 
something hard. We dug around carefully and discovered two big pot- 
tery containers. They were so heavy and hard to lift. My brother and I 
carried them into our house. We unsealed the covers and found shiny 
gold coins, in both of them! 

I couldn't believe my eyes. I called all my family together. We emp- 
tied the pots, dumped all of the gold coins onto the floor, washed off 
the dirt, and then piled them up on the table. We counted and 
counted— there were one hundred of them. My goodness, my whole 
family was in a total blissful daze. Everything just felt so unreal. We 
truly believed that we wouldn t have to worry about money for the rest 
of our lives. 

Oh well, as the saying goes: walls have ears. Apparently, our 
screaming caught the attention of the contractors. They had seen 
everything through the window. Those three bastards were consumed 
with jealousy. They immediately contacted the police. Half an hour 
later, several police cars arrived and surrounded our house from every 
direction. Of course, we didnt know that. At that moment, my whole 
family was still caught up in the excitement of our newly gained wealth. 
We were literally shaking with ecstasy. Suddenly, the door burst open. 
We saw fully armed police everywhere, as if they had just descended 
from heaven. Without any explanation, they shoved us aside and 
snatched the two pots of gold. Then, they tied up my whole family with 
one long rope, me, my parents, my younger brother, and my nephew, 
and herded us into a police truck. 



At the Public Security Bureau, police interrogated us for a whole 
night. The next morning, they decided that my parents and my nephew 
were not directly linked to the case, so the police released them. My 
younger brother and I were transferred to a detention center in Yibing. 
Special detectives were called in to interrogate us in three shifts for 
several days. Police charged that we had stolen the gold coins from the 
grave of the Qing official. A Mr. Bai, who was the chief interrogator, put 
a gold coin on my palm and asked me to examine the head of the coin 
carefully. I looked at it closely and noticed several characters: “Minted 
in the sixth year of Qing Emperor Tongzhi’s reign by the Xi family.” I 
didnt realize those gold pieces were minted in 1867. My family mem- 
bers were so carried away with the discovery that none of us saw those 
characters on the coins. 

I told the police repeatedly that my brother and I had found those 
gold pieces under our own house. On hearing that, Mr. Bai gave out a 
cold laugh: These gold pieces are clearly part of the treasures inside 
Mr. Xis tomb. How could those gold pieces end up buried under your 
house? They didn't have legs, did they? He also said that there were 
many Ming [1368-1644] and Qing tombs in the vicinity of the village. 
About 70 to 80 percent had been looted by an organized group of rob- 
bers. He said my case was only the beginning of a large-scale investiga- 
tion. The government was determined to protect cultural relics as well 
as to wipe out the crime syndicate. Police hoped to piece together all 
the clues from my case and capture the ringleader. They suspected that 
my brother and I were both grave robbers. 

I was dumbfounded. I had no clue as to what Mr. Bai was talking 
about. He said sternly: Don't attempt to put on a show. 'Fess up. Coop- 
eration will lead to leniency. We know that you and your brother are not 
the ringleaders. Who is behind all these lootings? Are you hoarding any 
other precious cultural relics, such as porcelain, jade, or pottery? How 
many have you sold on the market? My mind was completely fogged 
up; I couldn't have cooked up stories even if 1 had wanted to. I just kept 
saying: I don't belong to any group and I haven’t stolen anything. Then, 
Mr. Bai became really nasty: I initially thought you guys were just a 
bunch of hicks. Didn t realize you are pretty experienced in coping with 
interrogations. If you refuse to cooperate, we can keep you here for- 
ever. Don't blame me if you get the tougher punishment. 

liao: How did the gold pieces end up under your house? 

The Grave Rohher 


tian: From the unexpected discovery of fortune to our sudden arrest, 
everything happened so fast. We didn't even have time to think about 
things such as who had buried those gold pieces under our house. We 
still don't know. 

Anyway, since the interrogation didn’t yield much of a result, the 
local police refused to release us and detained my brother and me for 
three and a half months. 

The days were long and miserable. Initially, the guards thought I 
was some kind of a big shot — the head of a triad specializing in robbing 
graves. They were a little fearful of me and treated me nicely. One guy 
even offered me a quilt when it became chilly in the evenings. Several 
weeks later, they found out that I was only a country bumpkin. Then 
things started to get nasty. The guards secretly instructed my fellow 
inmates to straighten me out. Under the guards prodding, the “big 
boss a tall burly guy in my cell — began to orchestrate the initiation 
ritual that I hadn't gone through in my first week of detention. They 
stripped me, forcing me to lie down on my stomach. Then about 
twenty inmates walked over, spat on my ass, and then stomped on it. 
They called this "granting the knighthood.” I was later told that prison- 
ers had gotten the idea from a Hong Kong kung fu movie about a 
fictional kingdom of beggars. After I was knighted,” two prisoners 
placed a big plastic chamber pot on top of me. They called that “tor- 
toise carrying the shitload. Both of my hands were pressed under 
the container. Each time I tried to move my hands or my body, the toi- 
let container would tilt and urine would spill over onto my body. One 
guy, who had been assigned to be my torturer, would kick my head if 
the container tilted. He kicked it so hard that my hair was soaked in 

liao: How could they be so brutal? 

tian: That was just the beginning. Each time the inmates walked over to 
relieve themselves, they would sit on the container and step on my 
body. The nicer ones would only put their feet on my shoulder or back. 
Those evil ones deliberately put their feet on my head. I began to 
scream with pain, begging for mercy. But the big boss wouldn’t let me 
go. With the help of two guys, he managed to sit on the container with 
both of his feet up in the air. By then, he had moved all his body weight 
onto me. I yelled loudly: You are killing me. You are killing me. 


My loud screaming startled the big boss. He jumped off and asked 
his lackeys to cover my mouth. But it was too late. One guard on duty 
heard me. He opened the cell door and pulled me out of there. My 
whole body was soaked with urine. Luckily, the guard was a new grad- 
uate from the local police academy. He was young and still had a strong 
sense of justice and sympathy. He ordered other inmates to fetch me 
some hot water so I could wash and change. The guard then called 
the big boss to his office for interrogation. The big boss was all smiles 
and said I was having stomach pains and accidentally knocked over 
the urine container. The guard turned to me, and asked if it was true. 
I immediately nodded my head. The guard was skeptical but had 
to believe his story. He called the clinic and asked the nurse to give 
me some pain medicine and then issued a warning to the big boss: 
Next time, if there are horrible screams from your cell, I won’t hear 
a word of explanation. I will just tie you up and put you in solitary 

liao: You were lucky to have met a sympathetic guard. 

iian: W hen the big boss and I were sent back to the cell, he tossed me 
a cigarette butt and said: You were quite a guy. You didn t betray me. Go 
rest up for a couple of days. I will give you a new assignment. Why 
don’t you clean the floor? 

LIAO: How did it work? 

tian: The big boss assigned the chores to all inmates in my cell. If he 
didn t like someone, he would assign the person to dump and clean the 
chamber pot. Two people were needed for the job. Those two had to 
stand at attention by the container all day, one on each side. When the 
big boss or his friends needed to take a dump, the two guys had to help 
him take off his pants, and then stand in front of him to shield the big 
boss from public view. If the big boss wanted to spit while sitting on the 
pot, he would grab one of the guys by the collar and spit into his shirt. 
Compared with those two toilet helpers, I was really lucky. At least I 
was promoted to be the floor cleaner and didn't have to serve as a 
human spittoon. 

The Grave Robber 


liao: I ve been in jail once and know something about initiation rituals. 
But I ve never heard about the ceremony you told me. I guess prisoners 
are getting more creative when it comes to torturing people. 

tian. For a while I thought 1 was doing OK. Two weeks later, the deten- 
tion center launched a large-scale “Confession Leads to Leniency” 
campaign, which encouraged us to confess our own crimes and report 
on others. One day, about three hundred detainees from nine cells 
were called to the courtyard for a meeting. Leaders from the local 
Communist Party, the Public Security Bureau, and the People’s Court 
showed up. We lined up in neat horizontal and vertical rows and sat on 
the floor, both legs crossed and back straight, just like soldiers in train- 
ing. One by one, the leaders gave their speeches. All of them were say- 
ing the same thing: You should seize opportunities to confess. 
Confessions will lead to reduced sentences. If alleged murderers vol- 
untarily confess their crimes and if the details they provide can be con- 
firmed by authorities, they will get life imprisonment instead of the 
death penalty. At the end, the prison chief reminded everyone that the 
new policy would last for only two weeks. Once the campaign was over, 
no matter what kind of confession a detainee made, no leniency would 
be granted. 

I sat there quietly, listening very attentively. I didn’t even dare 
cough or fart. The courtyard was surrounded by fully armed guards, 
and two machine guns were aiming at us from the window of a build- 
ing nearby. At the end of the meeting, I suddenly heard my name called 
by the head of the Public Security Bureau. “Yes, sir!” I immediately got 
up and stood at attention. He looked at me with a fake smile, and said: 
Tian Zhiguang, 1 want you to think hard and take advantage of this 
opportunity, understand? 

Overnight, the chief's remarks turned me into a top celebrity thief. 
Once again, everyone began to think I was a big criminal. After we 
were back in the cell, a guard whispered something to the big boss, and 
then delivered some pens and notepads. Every inmate was supposed to 
put his confession in writing. The big boss pulled me aside and whis- 
pered: You are a lucky guy. Even the head of the Public Security Bureau 
knows you. If you confess, he will probably let you go home tomorrow. 

I shook my head and answered: I don’t have anything to confess. The 
big boss slapped my head: You dumb ass. This type of campaign only 



happens once a year. If you don’t take advantage of it, you will end up 
in jail forever. 

Then, he continued to lecture me: Those officials out there are all 
liars. Under normal circumstances, they trick you into confessing, 
promising you the reward of a reduced sentence. Once you tell every- 
thing, they never keep their promise. You probably end up with a bullet 
in the head. However, this campaign is different. The media has writ- 
ten about it. If those officials renege on their promises, they will lose 
face and credibility. After hearing his lecture, I told him the same 
thing: I don't really have anything to confess. The big boss finally lost 
patience with me. He tossed me a pen and a notepad, and said: Don’t 
try to fool me. You’d better tell everything to the authorities. Just blame 
everything on your accomplices who are on the lam. Your confession 
will benefit me. I can take credit for extracting the truth out of you. If 
I’m lucky, I can get my sentence reduced. 

I was left with no choice. I took the pen and began to agonize over 
my confession. The cell was like a classroom and every "student” was 
asked to write a paper. The big boss walked around the room, making 
sure that every inmate was following instructions. I wrote in detail 
about what I had already told the police. After a whole day of nonstop 
writing and rewriting, we finally turned in our “papers.” The next morn- 
ing, we were told that half of the inmates had failed to produce any 
new stuff. The big boss became mad, really mad. He told his lackeys to 
slap and kick us. Then he ordered us to kneel down, put our notepads 
on the floor, and then bend over to revise our confessions. It was very 
painful to kneel and bend like that lor hours. Two older inmates 
couldn’t take it after ten or fifteen minutes. They began to moan with 
pain. The big boss dragged the two guys to the chamber pot and dipped 
their heads in urine. He then forced them to resume. Every now and 
then, he would yell at us: Your confession needs to be sensational. 
Don t try to simplify and whitewash. The more serious your crimes are, 
the better it makes me look. 

Under the intense pressure, my fellow inmates began to fabricate 
stories of rape. Having grown up in the countryside, I was an honest 
bumpkin. I wasnt good at making up stories. I kept writing the same 
thing. The big boss became really irritated. He lit up a cigarette and 
poked the burning end of the cigarette at my eyelids. I began to 
scream. He ordered another inmate to seal my mouth with Scotch 

The Grave Robber 261 

tape. He then grabbed my hair and said: Are you fucking with me? I 
have the backing of the prison authority, do you know that? He threw 
me onto the floor and asked other inmates to kick me. After about ten 
minutes, he told them to stop and unsealed my mouth. He asked again: 
Are you going to do it or not? I got up, knelt in front of him, and said: 
Sir, I don t really have anything to write. 

Again, he grabbed my hair, and asked one inmate to pry my mouth 
open: You have a very stubborn tongue. He stuffed four or five burning 
cigarette butts right into my mouth. They hurt but I couldn’t spit them 
out because two guys were holding my head and chin. I coughed vio- 
lently and tears ran down my face. The big boss asked again: Are you 
ready to confess or not? If you don’t, I’m going to light up this whole 
packet of cigarettes and stuff them down your throat. 

I caved in and became creative. I admitted that I had robbed graves 
before. He asked: How many times? I raised both hands and showed 
him eight of my fingers. He smiled: Very good! 

Believe it or not, my imagination began to run wild. Even though 
there were many grammatical errors in my report, I did it very vividly. 
I said that I started robbing graves at the age of fifteen and had been 
in the business for nine years. I used chisels, hammers, and flashlights 
as tools. Each time I robbed a grave, I would hide the excavated treas- 
ures, such as gold, jewelry, and other valuables, under some shrubs. I 
would then dig them out five or six months later, after the coast was 

I also said that I used a special compass to locate tombs. The com- 
pass helped me to detect how much treasure was buried inside. 

Before dinnertime, I showed my newly fabricated confession to 
the big boss. He was very satisfied with the information. He then 
handed them over to the guard on duty. As a reward, I was given a 
bowl of spicy pork. I was so hungry and wanted to swallow it all. But 
my mouth and my tongue still hurt from the cigarette burns. Every 
bite brought excruciating pain. It took me two hours to finish that 

The next day, one guard put the handcuffs on me and shoved me 
into a police car. I was supposed to take four police detectives to my 
hometown and uncover those hidden treasures. The car jolted along 
the bumpy road for about four or five hours. We passed Xijia Mountain 
and then came to a crossroad. The police asked me which way to go. I 


pointed randomly to a small side road. The police car drove right on. 
Then the car came to a sudden stop. I realized that we had come to a 
dead end, in front of a run-down farmhouse 

The police became impatient. They waved their guns at me: Where 
the hell is it? I stammered: It— it’s somewhere around here. They 
kicked me out of the car. 1 had no idea where we were. I simply pointed 
in the direction of a hill nearby. The police parked their car on the side 
of the road and all four of them followed me. My mind was running 
blank. All I did was to amble forward into the bushes, jump over small 
streams, and climb steep slopes. About twenty minutes later, we saw 
over ten tombs scattered around a cleared area. I sat down, exhausted. 
I pointed at the tombs and said. There they are. The policemen were 
panting, gasping for air. They asked me: Which one? I simply drew a 
circle on the ground, and said: From here to there. One guy took out 
a small military shovel from his backpack, and a piece of elaborate- 
looking equipment. Seeing that the police took my words really seri- 
ously, I began to tremble with fear. I walked around those tombs, 
pretending I was trying to remember where I had buried my treasures. 
The guy with the detecting equipment followed me. Others were dig- 
ging frantically. An hour later, nothing had turned up. As darkness fell, 
the head of the group lost his patience. He seized the collar of my shirt 
and yelled: Where in the hell did you bury your treasures? I put both of 
my hands up: Sir, I really don t know . . . Before I even finished my sen- 
tence, he punched me in the face. 1 fell into the bushes. I struggled to 
get up, and knelt in front of him: Sir, please forgive me. I lied and I 
deserve to die. One guy tried to hit me with his shovel, but was stopped 
by the group leader. 

By the time we walked back to the parked car, it was already after 
midnight. On our way back, I told them about the tortures I had gone 
through and explained to them why I had to lie. Nobody listened to my 
story. One guy even pointed his gun at my face and said: If you don't 
shut up, I m going to blow your head off. 

liao: You certainly played a big practical joke on the police. 

tian: I had no choice. Otherwise I would have to swallow a whole pack 
of burning cigarettes. My body could have been turned into a furnace. 

liao: What happened later on? 

The Grave Robber 263 

tian : The big boss in my cell blamed me for trashing his opportunity of 
getting a reward. He and other inmates stripped me naked and ordered 
me to stand by the chamber pot for twenty-four hours. Each time I 
tried to doze off, they would use cigarette butts to burn the hair under 
my armpit, on my legs, and around my genitals. It was so painful but I 
didnt dare to make a noise for fear that the guards would hear it. If 
they had, it could have gotten me into more trouble with the big boss. I 
passed out a couple of times from the pain, but the big boss wouldn’t 
give up. He ordered one inmate to inject some peppery water up into 
my ass. I begged him: Please have mercy. I promise I will confess this 
time. Nobody believed me. I said: No. I swear to Chairman Mao that 
what I m saying is true. If I lie, my mother will turn into a whore for the 
Americans. My desperate begging made everyone laugh. He softened 
his tone by saying: If I can’t get you to confess, the guards will give me 
a hard time. I’m glad you understand. 

I then fabricated more stories in my second round of confession. 
Before I gave it to the guard, the big boss reviewed it and forced me to 
put a statement at the end of my confession. It read: If I tell lies this 
time, 1 m willing to subject myself to any type of punishment from the 
people’s government, including the death penalty. 

liao: You were really bold. 

tian : What would you expect me to do? I knew very well that the 
authorities would take a couple of days or so to read my confession. 
Then it would take another day before they decided to drive me out to 
find the hidden treasures. That would buy me several days of peace. I 
could also get some food. As for what consequences those lies would 
bring me, I didn t even care to think. After two days of peace and quiet, 

I was on the road again, in a police car. Once again, we ended up with 
nothing. The police kicked me and slapped me and tied both of my 
hands tightly behind my back. I was locked up in solitary confinement 
for several days. When I was back in my cell, the big boss ordered more 
heatings. I passed out many times. Each time after 1 regained conscious- 
ness, I would beg and scream: I'm going to tell the truth this time, I 
swear to Chairman Mao. They never trusted me again. Several times, 
when I saw the guards passing by in the hallway, 1 would reach my 
hands out through the iron bars, trying to get their help. They simply 
ignored my plea. 


But one day, things suddenly began to change. Two guards came 
and took the big boss away. At the end of the day he came back, sub- 
dued and silent. When the other inmates saw that, they all got scared 
and sat around him quietly. 1 picked my usual spot by the chamber pot, 
anticipating another round of beatings. But nothing happened. At bed- 
time, several of his lackeys tried to massage his back and made his bed 
for him, but he simply pushed them away. 

liao: Could it be that some high-level officials were coming in for an 

tian: Not exactly. The next day all inmates were called to the courtyard 
for a meeting, just like the one we had had before. After the meeting 
started, five inmates were paraded onto the podium. Two guards 
pushed them down onto the ground, with their faces down and their 
hands tied behind their backs. It turned out that during the “Confes- 
sion Leads to Leniency" campaign, a guy in Cell Six had died from 
severe beatings from his fellow detainees. He was a midlevel executive 
at a state-run enterprise, and was a chief suspect in an embezzling 
case. Police interrogated him for a week, but he wouldn't admit any 
guilt. The guards secretly asked inmates to roughen him up a bit. That 
poor guy wasn't up to it. After getting hit and kicked on the chest by a 
couple of bullies, his face turned blue. But those guys still wouldn’t 
stop. One tall guy grabbed the former executive by the feet and held 
him upside down while another one punched him in the stomach. 
Soon, his body became limp and he began to spit blood. By the time 
the guards found out, the executive had already died. His death leaked 
out to the media. Io prevent future embarrassment, the local govern- 
ment ordered prison authorities to crack down on big bullies inside 
the detention center. But who were the real murderers? Not those 
bullies. They were coerced by the guards, none of whom was taking 

liao: This practice of ordering prisoners to extract confessions from fel- 
low inmates has been around for a long time, from the Qing dynasty to 
the present. 

tian: Yeah, that’s what everyone says. But that doesn't mean it’s legal. 
After the meeting, the big boss in my cell was scared shitless. He knelt 

The Grave Rohher 265 

down, kowtowed to a little portrait of the Buddha that had been smug- 
gled in by an inmate: He then told his lackeys to be careful during 
future tortures: We should focus on those areas where we can cause 
pain and discomfort without killing the person. He then patted me on 
my shoulder: 1 hank God you didn t die in my hands. 

The next day, right after breakfast, the loudspeaker inside each cell 
was suddenly turned on — we were told that the bullies were going to 
be paraded around inside the detention center. We all gathered around 
the iron bars and looked toward the hallway. Soon, the bullies in Cell 
Six came, and stopped right in front of us. They recited a couple of 
lines, like robots: My name is so and so and I’m a bully. I illegally tor- 
tured my fellow detainees. I deserve severe punishment. Please do not 
follow my example. After that, they were dragged away to another cell. It 
was quite a festive occasion. Several guys in my cell started to applaud. 
The big boss gave them a nasty look, and they immediately stopped. 

The campaign worked in my favor. During the next week, it was 
very peaceful and the big boss was nice. 

Before 1 even had the chance to witness the execution of those bul- 
lies, my brother and I were released. My poor brother was locked up in 
a separate cell and suffered internal injuries from the bullies. When we 
got home, we found out that our mother had gone insane. She would 
sit by the door all day, without moving. She peed and shat in her pants. 
My dad moved in with my elder sister's family. He would come in to 
cook for my mother every couple of days and clean. My brother and 1 
used to be very energetic. But after we got out of jail, our health got 
really bad. We looked like ghosts and didn't have the strength to do any 
physical labor. On top of that, we were shunned by everyone in the vil- 
lage because people thought we were thieves. My brother had blood in 
his stool for a long time, but he doesn t have money to see a doctor. I’ve 
been having bladder problems for nine years and I’m impotent. I think 
about women all the time, but just can t get it up. I don’t think I’m 
capable of having kids to carry on the family name. Someone needs to 
pay for our sufferings. 

liao: How? 

tian: I became a beggar and wandered in the county for quite a while. 
One day, I overheard someone talking about a newspaper report that 
said that a peasant had won a lawsuit against the local Public Security 



Bureau. I was inspired by the story. I changed into some clean clothes, 
and went to seek advice at a law office. I told the lawyer in tears about 
my detention and the tragic impact on my family. 

liao: What did the lawyer say? 

tian: He was very sympathetic to my situation, hut declined to take my 
case. He said it would be very hard to sue the local Public Security 
Bureau because no one would be willing to testify on my behalf. He 
said my own account was insufficient. That made me really mad. I had 
to seek justice somewhere. I took the case to the local court myself and 
they wouldn’t take it. I then went to file petitions to higher levels of 
government, seeking 200,000 yuan [US$25,000] in compensation. 
Nobody listened. So I came to Chengdu to file a petition with the 
provincial supreme court. I want to sue the police for illegally detaining 
me. I also want to sue the detention center for secretly encouraging 
detainees to extract confessions from their fellow detainees. Those 
bullies in the detention center had turned the Communist jail into a 
living hell. Last, I want to sue the local Public Security Bureau for 
embezzling the gold coins. Nobody knows where the confiscated gold 
coins have gone. Those involved in the case should be liable for the 
loss of the coins. 

liao: Sounds reasonable to me. 

tian: So far, nobody has yet handled my case. The Communist Party 
and this government are very cold-blooded. 


A week after the lunar new year in iggi, I accompanied a 
lauyer friend to a jail in Chongqing and visited the famous rob- 
ber Cui Zhixiong. The date set for his execution had been post- 
poned for forty-five days. According to him, "I got lucky and 
picked up another Chinese New Year for free.” 

Cui was thirty-nine years old, with heaxry brou’s and big 
round eyes. He was quite strong. Using a Chinese cliche, I will 
describe him as having a tiger’s back and a bear’s waist. Even in 
the cold winter he was wearing only a shirt and summer pants. 
He was heavily shackled, but didn’t look at all frazzled and 
weary like other death row inmates I had met. 

After my interview, I set aside the tapes and notes. I revis- 
ited our conversation in 7998, when he had long been turned 
into ashes. 

liaoyiwu: How did you end up here? 

cui zhixiong: I have committed the worst crime under heaven. I have 
cracked many safes and stolen millions of yuan. 1 m waiting to be exe- 
cuted. This is the second time Ive been locked up in a prison. Three 
years ago, I got busted for the first time and was locked up at a deten- 
tion center on Gele Mountain. That was an old-style prison built by the 
Nationalists in the 1940s. Even after fifty-some years, the structure was 
still solid. The walls were built with steel-reinforced concrete, and 
there were four watchtowers, one at each corner. The daily activities of 
prisoners were confined to a rectangular courtyard, which was sur- 
rounded by a two-story building. The back of the prison bordered on a 
deep cliff. 

To get to the prison, a car had to climb a long circuitous mountain 
road. After you passed the entrance, you found yourself in a small 
courtyard. Outsiders were allowed to come in only after going through 



a thorough body search. On the ground floor, there was an interroga- 
tion room, a kitchen, a public bathhouse, a storage room, and a latrine. 
The second floor housed all the prison cells — sixteen altogether, 
including one for women. A circular corridor, which cut through the 
prison wards, was so dark that lightbulbs had to be turned on during 
the daytime. My prison cell had a window in the ceiling. If 1 jumped 
high enough, I could touch the window bars. When I did a chin-up and 
hung on to the window bars, I could see in the distance a hill covered 
with pine trees. 

liao: How did you get so familiar with the local geography? 

cui : 1 am a born thief. I can remember the details of any locale after one 
visit. Besides, I was locked up inside that detention center for over two 
months. I knew every piece of brick and stone. The first day I entered 
the detention center, 1 began to work on a plan to escape. I was told 
that nobody had ever managed to escape from that prison. Only a fool 
would believe that. Even stones have cracks. I had broken into so many 
safes and frequented so many forbidden areas. Nobody had stopped 
me. I was quite confident that I could find a way out. 

During the first month, I had to go through interrogation every day. 
I didn't have time to focus on any escape plan. Later on, I began to 
cooperate with my interrogators. I would confess a little here and a lit- 
tle there. The interrogators became very happy. Sometimes, when I 
offered them some secrets of safecracking, they couldn’t digest them 
all. They would spend a couple of days researching. As a result, I was 
able to take a break. 

liao: Under normal circumstances, a detainee has to go through all 
sorts of “procedures" to have his attitude changed. Did they ever beat 
you up? 

cui: You are right. A new prisoner would have to go through various tor- 
tures designed by the guards and his fellow inmates to break him. I 
lucked out. Since the prosecutor needed me to help out with some of 
his other cases, he personally brought me to see the head of the deten- 
tion center and told him to take good care of me. So I was spared the 
“procedures.” Anyway, after the pace of my interrogation slowed down, 

The Safecracker 269 

I had time to think about how to escape. First, I had to find opportuni- 
ties when I could be left alone. When many people huddle together, 
even a magician can t make himself disappear in front of them. Prison- 
ers did everything together. Apart from three meals, every inmate was 
allowed to go out for one fifteen-minute break in the morning and one 
in the afternoon. When the inmates stepped out into the courtyard, the 
guards would watch everyone from inside the towers perched on top of 
the four corners of the wall. One way to avoid attention from the 
guards was to hide inside the latrine. The latrine, which was opposite 
the public bathhouse, was dimly lit. Its stinky smell was overwhelming. 
Inside, there was a row of holes on the ground so people could squat on 
them to take care of their business. Those holes were connected to a 
huge human-waste pond at the back of the latrine. The stinky latrine 
was the perfect place for a loner like me. 

liao: No other prisoner used the latrine at break time? 

cui: There was a big wooden shit bucket inside each cell. People nor- 
mally did their business in there. During our breaks, two inmates were 
responsible for carrying the buckets out, dumping the contents, and 
washing them. Therefore, when everyone rushed into the courtyard, 
people in charge of the buckets would try to finish their tasks as soon as 
possible so they could go breathe some fresh air or stealthily swap 
some petty goods with others. So I could squat inside the latrine alone 
for over ten minutes without arousing any suspicion. 

It took me two trips to the latrine to finally figure out an action 
plan. The first time I was in there, I noticed a tiny ventilation window. 
From there, I could see a wall right in front of me. There was no way I 
could get out that way. Then, I found out about the human-waste pond 
behind the latrine. I began to wonder whether the pond was built 
inside the jail or outside. It couldnt have been inside because I had 
never seen prison staff clean out the pond. But, if the pond was out- 
side, was it an open one or was it covered like a manhole with a lid on 
it? How big and heavy could the lid be? 

One day, as I was squatting inside the latrine, I vaguely heard 
noises coming from outside the prison. I held my breath and pushed 
my ear against the wall. It sounded like someone was scooping out the 
human waste. The person might have been a local peasant because I 



could hear a horse-drawn cart. It was obvious that it was an open shit 
pond outside the prison wall. At that moment, all my blood rushed to 
my head. My brain was buzzing. I had a plan in place. 

The next step was to calculate the route and the speed of my 
escape. My daily breaks were about fifteen minutes each. It usually 
took five minutes for inmates from six cells to empty the wooden shit 
buckets in the latrine. That would give me ten minutes to go inside the 
latrine and complete phase one of the plan. At the end of the break, 
there would be a roll call. If they found someone missing, guards would 
check the courtyard and cells and then form a search team. That would 
probably give me nine to ten minutes to carry out phase two of the 
plan — running away. Then the guards would usually spend time divid- 
ing the team into several smaller groups so they could search sepa- 
rately. That would probably add two additional minutes. In other 
words, during the escape and chasing process, I would have twelve 
minutes to run away from the guards. 

liao: Wow, it was like in a thriller movie. 

cui: The stuff in a movie is nothing compared to my adventure. When 
they sent me to the detention center a couple of months before, it took 
the police car twenty minutes to get from the bottom of the mountain 
to the top. If my escape was successful, I could run down the mountain 
in a straight line in roughly the same amount of time. I had rehearsed 
this escape episode in my mind over ten times. 

Things worked out really smoothly. I remember clearly that it was 
on May 6, 1988, three days before my thirty-sixth birthday. That after- 
noon, I wrapped in a small plastic bag a vest, a pair of shorts and shoes, 
as well as a small towel. I tied the bag around my waist and put on a 
large uniform. After a guard blew the whistle for afternoon break, I 
joined the crowd in the hallway. Two minutes later, I was inside the 
courtyard. I held myself against a wall and glanced up at the guards 
inside the watchtowers. They were chatting. I then quickly crept into 
the latrine and almost bumped into two inmates walking out with a 
bucket. I deliberately made a lot of noise unbuckling my pants and 
they didn’t even look back. I squatted over the last hole from the door. 
I could hear a guy come in and take a piss at the urinals near the latrine 
entrance. There was no time to waste. I took off my uniform and care- 

The Safecracker 271 

fully slid my body down into the hole. I couldn t look down because the 
stinky smell went directly into my nose, bringing tears to my face. The 
squatting hole was pretty small. I had to let my legs down first, and 
then squeeze my body down slowly, with two hands firmly clinging to 
the edge. Then I slowly lowered my upper body and then my head 
down. I found myself dangling in the air. I didn't realize the hole was so 
deep. 1 clenched my teeth and counted one, two, and three. Then I let 
go with both hands. The next thing 1 knew, I had plunged into the shit 
hole like a heavy bomb. 

My heart beat so fast. It was going to explode. My basic instinct to 
survive overcame everything. I ducked my head down inside the shit 
and swam forward. 1 could feel a rat jumping over my back. Time 
seemed to have frozen. Goddammit, it seemed forever. 1 began to trem- 
ble involuntarily. I didn t dare to open my eyes. I could hardly move 
because the human waste was too thick. 1 just splashed forward little 
by little. I felt I was drowning. Soon, 1 touched some barbed wire. I 
raised my head and opened my eyes. I was outside! I was about five 
meters away from the edge of the pond. A harbwire, connecting with 
the prison walls on both ends, ran through the middle of the pond. I 
reached my hands down and tried to see how I could get through. It 
turned out that the wire didn't reach all way down to the bottom. I dove 
headfirst into the shit and swam under the wire. By the time I got out, 

I had two big deep scratches on my back and legs. Since 1 had pretty 
strong wrists and arms, I grabbed the edge and managed to drag my 
body out. I thought I had stayed in the shit pond forever. Actually, the 
whole operation took less than six or seven minutes because I could 
hear the prisoners inside were still on break. 

I quickly stripped, opened up the plastic bag, wiped myself with 
that towel, and then changed to my vest, shorts, and shoes. Apart from 
the stinky smell on my body, I looked like a jogger. 1 dashed down the 
mountain on a small wooded path. My legs moved like they were 
equipped with wings. I jumped over dead trees and big rocks. I think 1 
must have broken the world distance running record. 1 fell and rolled 
down a sloping mountain path several times. I got up and moved on. I 
ran into five or six tourists coming down from the mountain. I smelled 
so bad. They all covered their noses and ran away from me. All that 
time, I thought I heard the sirens of police cars. It turned out 1 was just 



Next to the Martyrs’ Cemetery at the foot of the mountain was a 
foreign languages college. 1 ran right onto the campus and passed 
through the students’ playground. Since I was only wearing a vest and 
shorts and had muscled arms and legs, people thought I was a profes- 
sional athlete. Nobody detected anything suspicious. I snuck into a 
dorm building. It was empty because students were either in class or 
outside. 1 cleaned myself in the public shower room, and snatched 
some clothes that were hung out to dry outside a dorm window. After I 
left the university, I realized that I was in a place called Shapingba. I 
knew that there was a large hospital nearby. I stopped a taxi and 
jumped in. After he drove for about a hundred meters, I could hear the 
sound of sirens. The search team had already arrived. About two hun- 
dred meters away, I noticed traffic police stopping cars to check pas- 
sengers inside. I immediately beckoned the driver to stop. I said 
apologetically, Sorry, sir. I forgot to bring my wallet. He turned his head 
back and said: Do you want me to take you back? Before he even fin- 
ished his sentence, I had already jumped out of the car. I ran in the 
direction of the hospital. After 1 walked in, I roamed around the patient 
ward and saw a morgue behind the labs. I lifted a latch on one of the 
back windows and climbed in. I looked around and found that the 
room was about twenty meters long and thirty meters wide. There were 
six stone platforms for corpses, and three were occupied. A couple of 
bodies were stacked inside a fridge with glass doors. Since I had no 
safe place to go, I simply lay down on a stone platform and covered 
myself up with a blue plastic sheet. 

It was pretty hot in May, but after lying down on a slab of stone for 
a couple of hours, the dampness began to seep through my bones. The 
morgue was dimly lit. The stinky smell of the bodies floated in the air. 
All my dead neighbors in that room seemed to have been killed in traf- 
fic accidents. I could see pools of blood on the slabs. I waited for the 
sky to turn dark. Anxious as I was, time seemed to move very slowly. A 
breeze came and the door kept swinging back and forth. I was shivering 
with fear. If anyone came in, I would have been finished. If that person 
dared to remove the sheet on top of me, 1 would thrust out my claws 
and choke him to death. 

liao: How long did you stay inside the morgue? 

2 73 

The Safecracker 

cui: It felt like eternity. I started by counting my heartbeat. When my 
heart beat fast, I considered three as one second. When it slowed 
down, I counted one beat as a second. Later on, I counted myself into 
a sleep. I was awakened by some noises in the adjacent room. It was 
the sound of chopsticks banging on tin bowls. Apparently, it was din- 
nertime tor the guard. The thought of dinner stimulated my stomach, 
which began to have terrible spasms. It hurt so much that I wanted to 
get up and move a little bit to distract myself from the pain. But I con- 
trolled my urges and held myself still a little longer. The guard spent 
the next two hours eating and drinking tea. Before he went to bed, I 
could hear him humming a tune from a traditional Sichuan opera. 
Strangely enough, I can now remember the tune and the words very 

I dings began to quiet down after the guard went to sleep. So I got 
up. My body was almost frozen stiff. I left the morgue. As I was passing 
by the hospital cafeteria, I noticed it was open for night-shift workers. 
Then, two nurses walked out, chatting and laughing. I hid behind a 
small grove of shrubs. As they passed by, I picked up a small piece of 
stone on the ground and threw it at one of them. It hit her right on the 

wrist. “Who is it?" She was startled, and dropped her food to the 

The two women screamed and ran back into the cafeteria for help. 

I ran away as fast as I could, and went hack to the morgue. I stayed 
there for a little longer until it was quiet on all fronts. When I came out 
again, I accidentally came across half a bottle of water on the side of 
the road. I picked it up and dumped the water into my mouth. It felt 
really good. I then came to the place where the two nurses dropped 
their food. I cupped the food up and swallowed it. My stomach sud- 
denly felt a surge of stabbing pain. I squatted down and rested for a few 
minutes. I then walked stealthily into the patient wards. I checked 
each floor for food. When I came to the fifth floor, I saw the doctor’s 
office was open. Nobody was inside. I walked in, quickly changed into 
a white gown I found in the closet, put on a surgical mask, and picked 
up a stethoscope from the desk. Then I visited a maternity ward, pre- 
tending I was a doctor on call. I ended up with quite a few treats: I had 
stolen over a thousand yuan from various patients and managed to get 
some cakes and fruit. 

After I came out of the hospital, I walked into a military medical 



academy next door. I stole a set of military uniforms that were hanging 
outside a dorm building. By that time, it was almost dawn. A big shut- 
tle bus was parked right in front of the building. I found a piece of 
metal string, bent it, slid it in to open the lock, and got inside. 1 made 
myself comfortable on the last row of seats. Exhausted as I was, I soon 
dozed off. Then I felt someone tugging at my clothes and pushing me 
to a corner seat. I woke up and realized that the sun was already up, 
and the bus was filled with students in military uniforms. A guy sitting 
next to me asked: Which class are you in? I couldn’t answer him, but 
randomly pointed to a building outside. He said: You work at the com- 
puter lab? I nodded. 

From the conversations I overheard on the bus, I realized that it 
was Sunday. The bus carried the students, including me, all the way 
downtown. The trip went well, without any glitches. For the first 
time in a long while, I saw groups of pretty girls on the street. I tasted 

liao: You were even bold enough to sleep on a military bus. Weren’t you 
afraid of getting caught? 

cui: I couldn t go back to the hospital, and it was not safe to loiter on the 
street. Walking around inside the military medical academy at night 
was even riskier. The shuttle bus was the only place to go. 

liao: What happened afterward? 

cui: They never caught me. I was a free man again, wandering all over 
the country, stealing and breaking into safes. I had stolen so much 
money that 1 didn’t know what to do with it. I decided to settle down 
and live as a recluse. I purchased a couple of houses in Beihai. But 1 
never felt safe. I wasn t at all excited about starting another business 
because I hated to associate myself with businessmen. They are boring 
people. Moreover, I had just reached the peak in my profession. If you 
wanted me to change jobs, 1 just couldn't get myself to become 
enthused about the idea. So, I just idled around. When 1 had nothing 
to do, my mind began to go crazy. I dreamed about prisons and police- 
men every night. 

The Safecracker 275 
liao: Were you ever married before? 

cui: I had a girlfriend. She was a big fan of the Taiwanese pop singer 
Fong Ange. I loved his songs too. 1 wanted to marry her but couldn’t. 
\ou don t have to tell your girlfriend about your profession, but you 
need to share everything with your wife. That's the Chinese tradition, 
isn't it? 

liao: How did you get caught this time? 

cui: Two years had passed since I escaped. 1 thought the coast was clear. 
I returned to Chongqing. One day, I made a bet with a couple of old 
buddies, saying that I could easily break into a new type of high-tech 
safe at a large company. There I went. I walked right through the main 
entrance. I broke into the treasurer’s office. Within ten minutes, I 
located the safe and cut off the office alarm system. I stuck a razor-thin 
knife into a small crack, and with the sound of a click, I cut off the 
alarm on the safe. No shit, was that what they called the new advanced 
laser protection technology? Breaking that damn thing was the easiest 
job 1 had ever done. 1 was a little carried away by this initial success 
and began to let down my guard. I leaned against the safe, chewing 
bubble gum. I even blew a big bubble. After I opened the safe door, I 
found there were about 500,000 yuan [US$60,300] in there, plus some 
bundles of newly minted hundred-yuan bills. On the spur of the 
moment, 1 used my cigarette lighter and began to burn those hundred- 
yuan bills one by one. Then, the police arrived before I even finished 
with one bundle. 

When I was arrested, I felt as if my heart had finally dropped to the 
ground after hanging on a high cliff for a long, long time. I felt my mind 
could finally rest. I stood up, stretched my hands out, and asked the 
police to handcuff me. Then, after they shackled me, I said calmly: 
Let’s go. 

LIAO: Now that you are on death row, how do you feel? 

cui: I think a lot about my escape three years before. It was too miracu- 
lous. However, nobody can escape his fate. While I was on the run, my 
body was set free, but my mind wasn t. I owe society too much. I never 


used the stolen cash to help those who really needed it. So many poor 
children can t afford to go to school, so many unemployed workers have 
nothing to support the family . . . What’s the difference between those 
corrupt officials and me? There’s none. OK, so much for the story. You 
are an intellectual and you understand that: whatever you do, you need 
passion and motivation. I have lost my passion and motivation to live. 
I'm ready to exit this world. 


On a chilly night in October 1996, I walked into a hot pot (Chi- 
nese fondue) restaurant on Wangjianmu Street in Chengdu. 
After I sat down, I saw a waiter leading a blind street musician 
inside. The musician was holding an erhu, a two-stringed Chi- 
nese violin, and feeling his way around the tables. He kept bous- 
ing to customers. I felt so sorry for him and ordered a tune. To 
my surprise, he played it beautifully. 

The erhu player said he was sixty-three and refused to dis- 
close his real name. He called himself “Nameless Zhang." 

liao yiwu: Master, you played so beautifully. Could you play me 
another tune, “Water from the River”? 

nameless zhang: You need to pay first. According to the rules here, 
you pay ten yuan per tune. 

liao: Here is fifty yuan [US$6.40]. Please feel it and make sure it's 
authentic. Normally speaking, one cannot put a price on music. That's 
all I can afford. 1 need to leave some to pay for my meal. 

zhang : Sir, you are a pro. If you want to hear more, I can play for you all 
night long. Playing the erhu is like a writer burning the midnight oil. 
The longer you play, the more you are into it. "Water from the River” is 
such a sad piece. Why dont I play you “Chirpy Birds on the Empty 

liao: f hats fine. Here is a toast to you. Throughout my life, I have loved 
two kinds of musical instruments: one is the erhu and the other, the 
flute. Look at the erhu; it only has two strings, but can express all the 
stories and emotions of human life. I grew up in Lijaping village, which 
was hemmed in on three sides by mountains. We used to live in a little 


run-down courtyard house at the foot of the mountain. When I see you 
play, all my childhood memories come crowding back. I remember a 
village teacher who liked to sit on the threshold of his house on rainy 
days and play the erhu. He also played it when the moon was out. His 
music always evoked in me a melancholy mood. Nowadays, I can only 
hear his music in my head. 

zhang: Your remarks make me cry. I have been selling music on the 
street for many years now. I can play all kinds of tunes with various 
techniques. But the majority of listeners have no ear for good music. 
They are just pretentious eaters who are simply looking for fun and 
something to enliven the atmosphere. I could handle their requests 
very easily. But playing music for a pro like you makes me nervous. The 
music has to come from my heart. 

liao: Tell me about yourself. How did you lose your eyesight? 

zhang: As soon as I was pulled out of my mother’s womb, I began to 
struggle in the dark. I don't know what sins they had committed, but all 
my three siblings were born blind. My family had a reputation in the 
region as “a cursed dark hole.” When I was three years old, my father 
thrust an erhu into my hand, and forced me with a whip to practice. 
Playing the erhu was a blind person's rice bowl. It was not as romantic 
as you have just described. When 1 turned seven, my parents couldn't 
stand the fact that all their children had been born blind. They both 
swallowed poison and committed suicide. At their funeral, I was 
draped in a white mourning outfit; I sat beside their bodies and played 
the erhu nonstop. I was hoping to get enough donations and buy 
coffins for them. I sat there and played for three days. Their bodies 
were decaying and I was also on the verge of exhaustion. But I didn’t 
dare to stop, feeling as if a whip were hanging over my head. Even now, 
I still associate my memories of my father with that thin whip that 
inflicted so much pain on me. Eventually, friends helped bury my par- 
ents. My siblings and I were adopted by another blind family. At the 
age of thirteen, I began to wander around the street to make a living as 
a musician. I started out in my hometown, Qiaolai, and then traveled 
all over the province. 

liao: Is it easy to move around for a person like you? 

zhang: Blind people have their own community. Each time I arrive at a 
new place, I have to pay my respects to the chief of the local commu- 
nity. I butter him up with flattering words, and then hand over some 
money as a gift. With this bribe, he will designate a blind kid to be my 
guide. The kid will lead me down boulevards and small lanes with 
instructions about where to make a turn and who lives where. He will 
also tell me which household is rich and more likely to hire musicians, 
what the temperaments of people in the household are, and when is a 
good time to visit. There are rules for everything. By the time you mem- 
orize them you can start your own business. 

liao: Those must have been the rules and customs before the Commu- 
nist revolution. We are now at the end of the twentieth century. There 
are street artists everywhere, some singing and playing musical instru- 
ments, others performing acrobatics. They don’t seem to follow any 
rules. Most of them change venues constantly. If they see a busy area, 
they start their gigs right there. Sometimes, the police will kick them 
out. During the holiday season last year, five blind musicians showed 
up in front of my house with their erhus, and together they played “The 
Sun Comes Out and People Are Happy.” I ended up giving each one a 
red envelope with crisp new bills in it. 

zhang: They were not real musicians. Ours is a big city. Fake musicians 
wander from district to district, swindling money out of residents. We 
do have rules within our community. Street musicians are gradually 
forming a guild with professional rules. Everyone is hoping to make 
money with real skills. The market for quacks and fake products is get- 
ting smaller. 

liao: What do you mean by "professional rules”? 

zhang: First, street musicians need to have their own fixed venues or 
territories. Second, street musicians need to elect their own guild 
chiefs. In China, everyone used to belong to a government work unit, 
which offered them jobs and housing. Street musicians also need to be 
organized and regulated. For example: I’ve been playing music near the 
Wangjianmu area for almost seven years. Everyone recognizes me and 
knows that I treat my music seriously. People are willing to order tunes 
from me and pay for them. I'm sure you’ll see blind musicians in other 



areas such as Chunxi Road or Wuhou Temple Road. 1 don t care and 
have no intention of finding out who is performing down there. All I 
care is to do a good job here. I assume street guitarists, violinists, beg- 
gars, bicycle repairers, or shoeshine boys in this territory will share my 
view. If someday we want to move to another territory at random, we 
have to negotiate. Otherwise, we could be kicked out. 

LIAO: Arent you worried about the hard economic times when restau- 
rants around here close down one after another? 

zhang: I have known many restaurants to close, but that hasn’t affected 
me that much. I have never been short of clients. There are many 
entrepreneurs who dream of making it big in the restaurant business. 
The closing of one store means the opening of another one. This area 
never remains idle. When a Chinese restaurant closes down, a Western 
restaurant opens up in its place. A seafood restaurant closes down, a 
hot pot joint opens. The Wangjianmu area used to be the burial site for 
a young emperor during ancient times. It has good feng shui and is full 
of prosperous human spirits. In the summertime, the hot pot vendors 
line up the street, and its hard to squeeze by. While I perform there, 
the smell of spices is very distracting to my sense of surroundings. 
There is the danger of me walking right onto someone’s hot pot stove. 
When all the hot pots are boiling and set in motion, so is my music, 
which is sometimes lost in the din of -the street. I asked a friend to get 
a speaker for me. I hook up the erhu to the speaker. I carry the speaker 
on my back while I play. I’ll do anything to make restaurant goers happy 
so I can make some money. 

liao: Don’t you feel you are wasting your life playing here? 

zhang: My life? 1 have never pondered these profound issues. For a 
blind person like me, every day is the same, unless I get sick or injure 
myself by bumping into a wall. When I was fifteen, I was playing at a 
teahouse one day. Suddenly, firecrackers filled the air like ear-shattering 
bombs, and completely drowned out the sound of my music. I didn’t 
stop and kept playing until the owner grabbed my hand. He said the 
teahouse was empty and everyone was gone. I felt my way outside. Peo- 
ple were beating gongs and drums. I was told that the Communist 

The Blind Erhu Player 281 

troops had entered the city. That was it. Didn’t realize the Nationalist 
government had been toppled. Later on, after the Communist govern- 
ment was established, I was given some money and sent back, along 
with many migrant workers, to the countryside in Sichuan. I was 
assigned to work as a musician for a local cultural bureau. 1 spent a 
year learning Braille and I even had a girlfriend. 

liao: How did you get yourself a girlfriend? 

zhang: That was 1957. Folk music was in. The tunes by the well-known 
blind erhu performer and composer Aibing were very popular in China. 
I rode on the popularity of Aibing, and was invited to perform on the 
stage for a large crowd. I also played for some music professors. One 
company made records of my music. Then local officials wanted me to 
recruit a student. I told them that I didn’t want anyone who had normal 
eyesight. I hose who could see would never have the opportunity to 
enter the world of the blind. 

So they sent me a female blind student, who was three years 
younger. We practiced day and night to prepare for performances at 
folk music concerts. One day around noontime, 1 was taking a nap. I 
felt something moving on my face. At first, I thought it was a fly, and 
tried to chase it away with my hands. Then, I touched a soft hand, the 
fingers caressing my nose and my eyes, sending burning sensations all 
the way to my heart. I reached out my hands and touched her as if I 
were in a dream. Her braids were so thick, her eyes were so big, her 
eyelashes were so long, and her skin was so smooth. We finally embraced 
and held each other close. Around that time, my music reached a peak. I 
didnt feel that I was playing. 1 felt as if someone inside my heart were 
playing for me. I could see my lover in my music. She was beautiful. 
Wouldnt it be nice if I could take her with me to wander around the 

liao: Did you get married? Did you have children? 

zhang: We had sex and she became pregnant. During those years, pre- 
marital sex was considered immoral and illegal. You could end up in jail 
for that. Since we were disabled people, the director at my work unit 
didn t prosecute us. But he forced my girlfriend to have an abortion so 



we could avoid bad repercussions among the masses. But we wanted 
the baby and my girlfriend refused to undertake the procedure. We 
applied for a marriage license. The director said that it was a special 
case and he needed to have meetings to discuss it. After several meet- 
ings, he still couldn't make a decision. Meanwhile, my girlfriend's preg- 
nancy was getting more and more prominent. 

Not long after, Chairman Mao's anti-Rightist movement started. 
My director was labeled a Rightist, and he lost his job. Some of his for- 
mer subordinates charged that my girlfriend had been impregnated by 
the director. They didn’t think a blind person like me could have sex 
with a woman. We never got the marriage license, but instead ended 
up being the target of public humiliation. I was labeled a corrupt ele- 
ment of society because I tried to defend my director. Thank God 1 was 
blind; otherwise I would have been tortured to death by those fanatics. 
My student had a harder life. Several guys pinned her down and 
coerced her into having an abortion. She was also labeled as a degener- 
ate element of society for having sex with the director. 

liao: What happened later? 

zhang: We broke up. It was fate and I couldn't escape. It would have 
been different if it had happened today. People's attitude toward sex is 
different. Also, if a blind person can marry another blind person, wouldn't 
it be a perfect match? It could help solve many social problems. At that 
time, the whole country was like a big prison. The Party controlled 
every aspect of our life — eating, drinking, pissing, shitting, birth, mar- 
riage, and death. By the way, my student died in the famine of i960. 

liao: People are more open-minded than before. Dating and premarital 
sex are no longer political issues. You are also free to sell your music on 
the street. I assume nobody asks you to pay license fees. 

zhang: Pay a license fee? To whom? I think the government should 
impose a social welfare tax to support people like us. I’ve been laid off 
from the Cultural Bureau since the 1960s. If it hadn’t been for those 
political campaigns, I would have been a celebrity and probably a pro- 
fessor at the Chinese Academy of Music. They have an erhu depart- 
ment, you know. 

The Blind Erhu Player 283 

liao: YVhats so special about being a professor? No profession grants 
you more freedom than that of a street musician. 

zhang: Being a street musician without any professional affiliations is 
nice, but not stable. You never know what will happen the next day. By 
the way, why dont you start to “enjoy this freedom? 

liao: With you being my guide, I will start enjoying this freedom tomor- 
row. I will bring my flute and let's do a duet together. You can collect all 
the money. 1 hope you can introduce me to more blind musicians. 

zhang: Why? 

liao: I want to find an agent who can help us find sponsors and organize 
a blind musicians concert. If you can get twenty blind musicans, we 
can make it happen. 

zhang: Good idea. 1 will go back and discuss it with the head of the guild. 

liao: Are you telling me that there is another blind musican older than 
you are? 

zhang: No, he is younger and he is not blind. He is the head of the local 
triad, who controls this territory. We call him “Mr. Big Guy for the 
Blind. He is the only one who can go and negotiate with musicans at 
the Wuhou Temple Road, Chunxi Road, and the Western Gate Bus 
Terminal areas. By the way, do you have money? He charges a lot of 
money for the service. 

liao: Don t be too obsessed with money. It ruins my initial impression of 
your erhu music. 

ZHANG: It's getting late. Let me start playing. 


I first met Que Yao at a nightclub in 1995. We were both guest 
performers that night. I was a flute player and he was a pop 
singer. A friend told me that he was blind in one eye. That was 
why he wore a pair of designer sunglasses all year round, day 
and night. He looked kind of cool with his sunglasses, remind- 
ing me of Wang Kai-wai, the Hong Kong movie director, whose 
credits include In the Mood for Love. Que Yao sang like a 
woman in a pretentiously soft falsetto. I found his style repul- 
sive, but the crowd at the bar swooned all over him. 

In the ensuing years, I saw him perform at various venues 
and got to know him a little better. On a recent Saturday after- 
noon, I interviewed Que Yao at a teahouse near Chengdu's 
Huangzhong Residential District. 

liao yiwu: Is Que Yao your real name? 

que yao: Of course. That’s my first name. My family name is Qi. 1 was 
born on April 11, 1969, right after the Communist Party concluded its 
Ninth Congress. Chairman Mao designated Marshal Lin Biao as his 
successor in the new Chinese constitution. The whole country showed 
up on the streets to celebrate. To mark the occasion, my parents named 
me Queyao, or Leap for Joy, for Chairman Mao’s choice of a successor. 
You know, it was at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Each time 
Chairman Mao issued a new edict or a quotation, whether it was dur- 
ing the day or in the evening, people had to go out into the street to 
celebrate with singing and dancing. 

liao: I remember those days. Were they Communist Party officials? 

que: No, far from that. They were ordinary folks — both of them were 
blind. For many years, I felt so embarrassed about my parents that 1 

The Street Singer 285 

never talked to anyone about them. It wasn’t until I turned thirty that I 
realized how stupid that was. I had a very interesting childhood. I grew 
up in a small town in Sichuan. My early memories were of sausages 
shuffling back and forth on a machine. I was three and my mother had 
me tied on her back. She worked at a sausage factory run by the local 
welfare agency. All the workers there were disabled — the blind, the 
deaf, and the crippled. Both my mom and dad were employed there. 
Between the two of them, they earned twenty-seven yuan [US$3.50] a 
month, barely enough to support a family of five, including me and my 
two sisters. 

My parents used to he street musicians. My mom played the 
erhu, a two-string Chinese violin. My father was quite a well-known 
storyteller. His storytelling, interspersed with singing, was accompa- 
nied by the daoqin — a traditional instrument which has become 
almost extinct nowadays. It was like a drum, made from a meter-long 
thick bamboo cylinder, with the open end covered in pigskin. He 
would tap the drum, singing and talking to its lively rhythms. Most 
of his stories were taken from Chinese classical literature, such as 
The Warrior Conquered the Tiger. People loved the suspense and 
colorful descriptions. My father had had a large following. When the 
Cultural Revolution started, the government banned him from per- 
forming because his stories were considered feudalistic and anti- 
revolutionary. As a result, he and my mom were assigned to work at the 
sausage factory. 

My hometown was situated along the Yangtze River in poverty- 
stricken Yunyang County, near Chongqing. Before the Cultural Revo- 
lution, people living in the remote, isolated countryside and small 
towns didn t have access to various forms of entertainment. Street per- 
formers and local operatic troupes filled the void. But, after 1966, street 
performances were declared illegal and local opera troupes were only 
allowed to stage the Eight Revolutionary Model Operas” mandated by 
Maos wife, Jiangqing. Apart from that, people spent their evenings 
attending Communist meetings. Sometimes, they might witness pub- 
lic executions of counterrevolutionaries or murderers and rapists. That 
was it. People were bored to tears. 

Beginning in the early 1970s, there was a period of political relax- 
ation. That was the time when Lin Biao, jealous of Chairman Mao’s 
supremacy within the Party, attempted to assassinate our Great Leader. 



After the assassination plot failed, he escaped in a hurry to seek asylum 
in what was then the Soviet Union. But his plane crashed in Mongolia 
after running out of fuel. Do you remember that? Who knows how he 
died. Anyhow, the extreme days of the Cultural Revolution were pretty 
much gone. That led to a revival of traditional operas, music, and plays 
at private venues such as weddings, funerals, or birthday parties. The 
revival offered opportunities for former street performers like my par- 
ents. So, they organized a small troupe consisting of seven or eight 
blind musicians. The troupe would carry simple props and perform at 
private functions. They even traveled across the border to Sichuan 
Province and performed on market days in rural areas outside the city 
of Yichang. They could earn twenty to thirty yuan [US$2.50 to $3.00] a 
day. Sometimes, they might run into the local militia or members of the 
Market Regulatory Committee. When that happened, all their "illegal 
income would be confiscated. They could be detained for a couple of 
days and had to attend public denunciation meetings. Somehow, they 
became used to the risks. 

1 went on tours with my parents at the age of four. Troupe members 
would carry their musical instruments on their backs while walking in 
a single line — one hand holding a stick and the other holding on to the 
shoulder of the person ahead of them. 1 served as their guide and led 
them from village to village. Can you imagine a four-year-old, with a 
shaved head, walking at the front of a group of blind musicians? I was 
often bored and tired, reduced to picking my nose and yawning. We 
would leave very early in the morning and walk ten to fifteen kilometers 
a day for a gig. On the way, our group constantly attracted the attention 
of adults and kids. They would follow us and poke fun at us. 1 felt so 
embarrassed and wished I could disappear. Well, most of the gigs were 
associated with funerals. It was a local tradition for rich people to have 
a lavish and festive funeral with bands and chanting monks. The event 
normally lasted from three days to a week, attracting hundreds of peo- 
ple from around the region. In a way, funerals provided a rare occasion 
for entertainment. At a funeral, the family of the dead would set up a 
stage in the middle of the courtyard, right next to the coffin. Various 
groups would take turns performing traditional operas or story singing. 
At a gig like this, my dad would do a dozen shows, each one lasting two 
to three hours. It was pretty challenging and could easily strain the per- 
former’s voice. But my dad had a voice of steel. He practiced long 

The Street Singer 287 

hours every day for many years. He could handle the long hours with- 
out any problems. 

liao: Did they do it all night long, without stopping? 

QUE: My dad would do three shows a night. There would be a two-hour 
break between shows. He would normally find a quiet spot and doze 
off a bit. All his shows were classic Chinese tales about the imperial 
court or touching love stories, which Chairman Mao called “historical 
trash." But ordinary folks loved the “historical trash.” One of the most 
popular pieces that my dad performed was called “Courtesan Li Yax- 
ian. The story goes like this: In the Tang dynasty [618—917], a young 
scholar named Zheng Yuanhe traveled to the capital city of Chang-an 
to take his imperial examination. If he could pass, he would be eligible 
for a high-level government post. As he passed the prosperous city of 
Hangzhou, he visited a brothel and encountered the famous courtesan 
Li Yaxian. He became so infatuated with her that he decided to stay. As 
one might predict, Zheng missed his exams and squandered all his 
allowance. Seeing that he was penniless, the madam threw him out on 
a cold snowy night. Zheng had almost frozen to death when two beg- 
gars saved him. They took pity and taught him to survive on the street 
by singing the famous Beggars Song. Meanwhile, courtesan Li was 
saddened and dismayed to see that her lover had lost his motivation to 
succeed in life. Li stabbed her eyes out and scarred her face so he 
would leave her to pursue his future at the imperial court. 

liao: What a story, with all its ups and downs. 

QUE: Many local opera troupes picked segments of the story and con- 
verted them into different operatic versions. For example, in Beijing 
opera, it was called “Beauty Stabbing Her Eyes to Motivate Her Way- 
ward Lover. In Sichuan opera, it had a different version, “Beggars 
Wandering the Street,” which focused on Zheng's life as a beggar. All 
these versions drew from the same story. For his own performance, my 
dad took the plot of the story and borrowed the librettos from various 
operatic versions. The result was a poetic masterpiece, with singing 
and storytelling. He dramatized every twist and turn and could hold 
people’s attention for hours. Believe it or not, my dad was illiterate. He 



learned all the librettos by listening. “Temptation abounds in the vast 
expanse of the red dust / The lover’s heart is entangled by all consum- 
ing lust / What is the meaning of life for butterflies and bees? / To be 
drawn to pretty flowers to fulfill their destiny and needs.” 

liao: I'm amazed you can still remember those librettos. 

QUE: As a kid, I didn't have any friends and spent lots of time hanging 
out with blind musicians. During those gigs, I would watch them until 
i dozed off. As time went by, I began to pick up a lot of the librettos. 1 
once fantasized acting in one of the operas someday. 

liao: Did you intend to inherit your father's trade? 

QUE: When I was young, I was so ashamed of associating with blind 
musicians. My dad had forced me to learn the erhu. Under his instruc- 
tion, I practiced for hours. My little soft hand hurt so much. But if I 
stopped, he would beat me. Since my heart wasn’t in it, I only learned 
to play a couple of popular revolutionary songs, such as “Chairman Is 
the Red Sun." Looking back, I wish I had persisted. My parents were 
born blind, but they were smart and highly motivated people. My 
mother could play five different types of musical instrument. During 
the Cultural Revolution, she was forced to read four thick volumes of 
Chairman Mao’s Selected Works in Braille. Soon, she memorized most 
of Mao’s articles and won a prize. As for my father, he became very 
popular in the late 1970s, after Mao died. Many traditional perform- 
ances came back with a vengeance. My father was invited to work with 
several opera companies in adapting old operatic pieces and writing 
new ones. He even performed several gigs on the radio. 

liao: So you didn't do too badly growing up among the blind musicians, 
did you? 

QUE: Not exactly. I picked up a lot of bad things too. One time, I fell 
asleep at my parents’ gig at a funeral. The host family put me on a bed 
next to the coffin. Then the bed began rocking and I woke up. The son 
of the deceased was having sex with a girl from the opera troupe. At the 
height of their passion, unaware that I was awake, the girl accidentally 

The Street Singer 289 

sat on my leg. I was so scared that I didn t dare to cry or breathe. My 
legs were totally numb. Also, I was only five years old when I learned 
that taking white arsenic could help a woman abort an unwanted fetus. 

liao: 1 hat was quite an education you got. What has happened to your 

QUE: My dad died in 1980, when I was eleven years old. Like many peo- 
ple who grew up along the Yangtze River, he enjoyed swimming. Since 
he was blind, I had to accompany him all the time. I would either swim 
by his side or stand on the pebbled beach to help him with directions. 
For example, il I saw a big swirl coming, I would scream “Danger.” If he 
swam too far out, I would call “Turn around.” One day, while watching 
him from the shore, I became tired and fell asleep. I didn’t hear his 
loud call for help. It turned out that he had had a cramp in the leg and 
drowned. When his body was pulled out, it was all black and blue, very 
ugly. I was very sad. All the onlookers pointed their fingers at me: This 
kid is so dumb. His dad called for help for a long time and he didn’t 
even wake up. I remember that my mother and my twin sisters 
hunched over my dad s body and wailed for hours. I simply stood there, 
without shedding any tears. I felt so guilty. 

After my dad passed away, my whole family collapsed. No matter 
how hard my mother worked, she still couldn t support three of us kids. 
So when I was fifteen, I dropped out of school and got a job at another 
local welfare factory for the disabled. Once again, I was thrown into 
the circle of the disabled. My job was to vulcanize a type of cheap but 
highly toxic rubber and then pour it into molding machines to make 
soles for shoes. The workplace was like a poisonous hell, but workers 
on the production line never had any protection. Each month, we were 
given protective gloves, masks, and jackets, but most of us sold them 
for cash. I was paid 120 yuan [US$15] a month, quite a handsome 
salary. But soon, I began to suffer severe upper respiratory problems 
because of that poisonous smoke we inhaled every day. I coughed a lot 
and my voice turned raspy and hoarse. Eventually I quit, joined a band, 
and sang at dance clubs. Thats how I began my singing career. I guess 
I must have got the genes from my dad. I didn’t have any training but I 
was quite good. Initially, I did a lot of popular love songs because my 
raspy voice was perfect for it. Later on, I began to sing rock. Around 



that time, I met a rock musician by the name of Chen. He had a big 
influence on me. He was in his thirties and performed electric guitar. I 
went to visit him in his apartment one day. There was no furniture, 
nothing, except a bed and a globe. He also had some copies of the 
travel magazine Windows to the World. When I commented on the 
absence of furniture in his apartment, he pointed to his head: All my 
wealth is inside here. He wanted to travel around the world. Chen 
always ganged up with other guys in stealing and fighting. His defense 
was that many Western artists lived similar lifestyles. He admired Bob 
Dylan and John Lennon. I totally fell for his crap. At the age of eigh- 
teen, I teamed up with some musicians and formed a touring band. 
We traveled all over China, from the cities of Guangzhou, Xian, and 
Wuhan, to Nanchang, Luoyang, and Urumichi in the far northwest. 
Wherever we went, we just performed on the street. 1 played guitar and 
was the lead singer. Initially, I was pretty shy at this new “venue,” but 
soon I started to like it. We did a lot of hard rock. The music was 
so loud that we were always surrounded by a large young crowd. We 
put a collection box on the ground. At the end of the day, we would 
split the profits. We didnt make too much money, but all of us had a 
great time. 

One day, I met a college student who watched me perform and 
really liked our band. When he learned that I composed my own songs, 
he was impressed and strongly recommended that I attend a music 
academy to have some formal training. I was seduced by the idea. So 
our band stayed in the same city for a long time. The college guy and I 
started hanging out together. Since it cost a lot of money to attend the 
music academy, he figured out a way to help me save money. He asked 
his parents to set aside a room for me and I moved in. Each time I 
earned some money on the street, I would hand it over to him and he 
would put it away in a bank. Since I didn’t smoke or drink, I did save 
quite a bit. But then I realized that having money was not enough. To 
enroll in the music school, students had to take the National College 
Entrance Exam. I was a high school dropout and there was no way I 
could get in. But I didn’t regret my efforts. At least I got to fantasize. 

Later on, I continued to travel. In each city I passed through, I 
would always see a church. Out of curiosity, I walked into one and 
stayed through a service. I was touched by the sound of hymns. Before 
I left, I stole a copy of the Bible. 1 read it and was really into it. So 1 

The Street Singer 291 

began to dream of going to a divinity school and becoming a composer 
serving God. I could write all sorts of hymns, you know. 

liao: I assume that the door to God’s service should be open and free to 
all. At least you don’t have to pay tuition. 

que: Well, 1 began to read the Bible and write hymns in my spare time. 
One day, I summoned enough courage to set up an appointment with a 
young minister. When I showed him my work, he glanced through it 
and handed it back to me with a look of contempt. He said: We have 
many beautiful hymns already written by grand masters. Your job is not 
to compose, but to learn. I wouldnt give up. I cleared my throat and 
sang a hymn that I had just written. But he wasn’t impressed. 

liao: Didn’t realize you turned yourself into a gospel singer and writer. 

QUE: I was pretty persistent. I met another minister in Yichang, Hubei 
Province. He was touched by my sincerity and piety. He recommended 
that I apply to the Jinling Divinity School in the southeastern city of 
Nanjing. I got the address from the minister and went on the road 
again. 1 felt very motivated. Four months later, I finally arrived in Nan- 
jing and met with the school president. I told him about my family, my 
childhood, and my experience with God. I also asked for advice on my 
plan to receive education in Christianity. The president kept a stern 
face and seldom looked at me throughout the conversation. Occasion- 
ally, he would force a smile out of politeness. After my presentation, he 
said coldly: This school is the most prestigious Christian higher educa- 
tional institute in China. To get in, you need to go through political back- 
ground checks. Also, you have to pass the National College Entrance 
Exam. Then, if you meet these two requirements, you will need to 
work here as a volunteer for two years before you can officially start. 

liao: Political background checks? 1 guess the government wants to 
make sure you are patriotic and support the Communist government. 

QUE: I begged him, saying: Can 1 work here as a volunteer and take 
classes while you go conduct my political background check? The pres- 
ident said that he couldn't allow such a precedent. He also shared with 



me his concern that many people had attempted to attend the divinity 
school and used the experience as a springboard to go abroad or to 
marry a foreigner. 1 heir motive had nothing to do with serving God. 
While he was lecturing me, I felt so uncomfortable. It was true that I 
had other motives. I wanted to change my life as a street musician. Was 
there anything wrong with that? 

liao: Did he point out a new path for a strayed sheep like you? 

QUE: Well, he told me to go back to Yichang and discuss my passion with 
the local church belonging to the Three-Selves Patriotic Movement. In 
China, the Party has created its own “Catholic” and “Protestant" 
churches in every city. They are called the Chinese Patriotic Catholic 
Association and the Three-Selves Patriotic Movement, which is 

liao: Yes, I m aware of it. It's strange that the Chinese Catholic church 
does not listen to the Vatican, but to the atheist Communist Party. 

QUE: It was understandable. Since nobody in China believes in Com- 
munism anymore, our leaders fear foreign religions could threaten the 
Party s rule. Lets not get into a political debate about it. Anyway, I fol- 
lowed his instructions and went back to Yichang. I sought help from an 
official of the Three-Selves Patriotic Movement. He said he could offer 
me the opportunity to volunteer in his church, but I had to get official 
approval from the Yunyang county government. I asked if the church 
could issue an invitation letter, but he said he couldn't. So the road to 
God was blocked. My passion for religion was officially over. 

liao: If you really had a passion for God, why didn't you join the 

hundreds of underground churches? You could compose hymns for 

QUE: The government has banned the underground churches. Many 
people have been arrested. It’s too risky. 

LIAO: What happened after your spiritual pursuit ran into obstacles? 

The Street Singer 293 

que: Life went on, without God. After a while, I felt tired and decided to 
settle down. First, I stayed in Chongqing. On October 8, 1992, 1 played 
a gig under a viaduct in the Shapingba district. My singing attracted 
quite a large crowd. But then, little did I know that the performance on 
that day would “throw me in a sewage ditch.” 

liao: Isnt that the code phrase for “got busted by the Municipal Regu- 
latory Agency?” 

que: Yes. Every street performer can tell you about their experiences 
with MR A. I had been busted before and always managed to get away 
with minimal loss. But on that day, things were quite out of control. 

liao: I’ve heard many stories of corrupt MRA officials. 

QUE: They are like state-supported robbers. Vendors need to bribe them 
big-time to get a permit. If you don't have a permit, they smash all your 
equipment during their regular checkups. Since we used expensive 
sound equipment, the damage could run up to several thousand yuan. 

liao: You were certainly much better equipped than your parents’ band. 

QUE: Our income was proportional to our investment. We wanted to 
make it big and make more money. But when the uniformed MRA rob- 
bers showed up that day, they shattered all my dreams. This is how it 
all happened. As I told you before, my hoarse and raspy voice was per- 
fect for the new Chinese rock songs. My favorite was “Descendants of 
the Dragon by the Taiwanese composer-singer Hou Dejian. In the 
1990s, that song was very popular. The majority of the young folks 
wouldnt know the first two lines of the Chinese national anthem, but 
they could sing every word of “Descendants of the Dragon.” So, when I 
performed the song that day, several hundred people immediately gath- 
ered and began to sing along. It was quite a spectacle. Soon, the crowd 
was getting bigger and our collection box was filled with one-yuan and 
five-yuan bills. After I finished, people applauded and requested three 
encores. As I was enjoying the moment of success, loud sirens could be 
heard all over the area. Then, several police cars and jeeps pulled in 
under the viaduct. Over twenty MRA officials and police jumped out 



of their vehicles. Since we had a huge crowd, which was wildly excited, 
the police and the MRA guys had a hard time dispersing them. The 
audience became really unruly. I could see the police were mad as 
hell. They accused me of instigating trouble and began kicking at the 
speakers and microphones. They smashed the drums and came to get 
my guitar. Since I had a brand-new guitar, I was stupid enough to 
clutch it to my chest and not let go. Two policemen tried to punch me 
and seize it. Several onlookers saw this and began to throw beer bottles 
at the police. That really incensed them. Soon, four or five police 
joined forces and began to hit me and other people with batons. I fell to 
the ground, with blood all over my face. My guitar was broken into 

After the crowd was finally dispersed, the police handcuffed and 
threw me into the back of a car, and then locked me up at a detention 

liao: What about the other people in the band? 

QUE: They were detained for a day or so and then released. Since I was 
the head of the band, they charged me with resisting arrest and insti- 
gating trouble. One officer said 1 deserved severe punishment. 

LIAO: How did they treat you at the detention center? 

QUE: At first, I was locked up with thirteen other guys in one room. I 
was still recovering from the bad beatings. I had a fever and lay on the 
floor, totally delirious. On the second day, two bastards saw that I was 
getting better. One guy pissed in a big bowl and then came over to 
me. He and his friend pried my mouth open and fed me the urine 
with a spoon. I spat it out but they kept slapping me. A guard heard 
my scream and stopped by. He yelled: You bastards, what are you 
doing to that guy over there? The guys immediately got up and stood at 
attention: Sir, we are feeding him Chinese herbal soup. The guard got 
curious: What kind of herbal soup? They answered: It's urine from a 
virgin boy. You know that a virgin boy’s urine can help heal the body's 
injuries. The guard burst out laughing: You guys are virgins? Hope you 
don t pass on your SI D to him. Then he walked away without stopping 
the torture. 

2 95 

The Street Singer 
liao: That was so disgusting. 

que: At the end of the first week, the guys in my room found out that I 
was a singer. They were thrilled. One guy, who was the head of the 
gang in my cell, immediately put me to work. He ordered me to sing 
any songs that he requested. For a whole afternoon, I performed over 
forty songs. I almost lost my voice, and those bastards still wouldn’t 
stop. Eventually, they all began to sing along. The whole detention cen- 
ter became a festive concert hall. I became a pop star among detainees. 
The celebrity status enabled me to dodge many of the physical 
attacks inflicted upon new arrivals. 

The head of the gang was a well-known underworld assassin. 
Before his arrest, he had been hired by many businesspeople to go col- 
lect debts. For those who refused to cough up the money, he would cut 
off their ears or chop off their hands. People were really scared of him. 
He made me his perfect bitch. After he got tired of my singing, he 
came up with new ideas. In the evenings, when the guards were away, 
he would force me to dress in drag. A guy made a wig out of straw. 
Another one tucked two bowls into my shirt as fake breasts. Within a 
few minutes, they turned me into a bar girl. I used a tube of toothpaste 
as a fake microphone and was ordered to do strip dances. I was also 
forced to perform oral sex on him several times. Luckily, I was only 
detained there for two weeks. Then, I received an official notice from 
the court — I was sentenced to two years at a youth reeducation camp 
on the outskirts of Chongqing. 

At the camp, we planted rice, tended orchids, and picked tea 
leaves. The hardest part was carrying buckets of human manure on 
shoulder poles from the delivery trucks to the field. My daily quota was 
fifty trips. Since I was short and thin, the job was killing me. So one day 
I talked with the camp director and asked if I could use my singing 
skills to educate and motivate other detainees. In return for my ser- 
vices, I could be spared some of the shit-carrying jobs. He thought it 
was a good idea and agreed to let me carry the manure three days a 
week rather than six days. He gave me a whole list of songs to perform. 
Among them were "Turning a New Chapter in Your Life,” “Physical 
Labor Is Glorious,” and “Socialism Is Good.” 

liao: You told me that you lost one of your eyes at the camp. How did it 


que: One day, I didn’t fulfill my manure-transporting quota and had to 
work extra hours. At about 8 p.m., I was getting really tired and dizzy, 
but I continued without taking a rest. Then I collapsed and fell on my 
face. I felt a sharp pain in my left eye. I realized that a piece of rock had 
pierced it. I screamed and passed out. When I woke up the next morn- 
ing, I was in a hospital. They operated on my eye and took the eyeball 
out. At that time, I was three months and four days away from my 
release from the camp. Because of my injury, they let me go earlier. So 
I was back on the street, half blind and penniless. I thought about my 
blind parents. Could it be some sort of inescapable fate? 

liao: Do you believe in fate? 

QUE: 1 was only in my twenties when that happened. If I had resigned 
myself to fate, I wouldn’t have had the guts to change and survive. 

liao: Well, you’ve changed. You are quite an established avant-garde 
street musician. 

QUE: My music has a lot to do with my life. The most important accom- 
plishment for me is that I have rediscovered myself. In the past, I was 
embarrassed by my parents and never bothered to delve into their 
music and their art. Life behind bars and performing on the street have 
given me a new appreciation for street music. I have found street life a 
rich source of my musical inspiration. I constantly bring a tape 
recorder with me and record the clash of street sounds and noises. I 
then add this lively mix into my own singing. 

liao: I listened to the CD you sent me. 1 have to say it's a very interest- 
ing concept. 

que: I'm back with the people whom I knew the best. In the summer of 
2000 , at the Sichuan Folk Art and Music Festival near the Big Buddha 
Temple [Dafosi] in Chengdu, 1 had the opportunity to perform on the 
same stage with Zou Zhongxi, a master in folk music. He was already in 
his eighties and completely blind. Like my father, Master Zou was also 
a storyteller-singer, but he played a three-piece wooden clicker called a 
jinxianban. The clicker snapped and flew between his fingers, and the 

The Street Singer 297 

variations on the rhythms enhanced his storytelling. My father used to 
be a big fan of Zou. He would carry a radio and listen to Master Zou’s 
performance for hours. On that day, I played my father’s daoqin and 
then Master Zou performed “The Warrior Conquered the Tiger” with 
his jinxianban. When he was recounting the part where the warrior 
finally tamed the fierce tiger, he was so emotionally charged that I 
could almost see light shooting out of his blind eyes. That was really 
amazing. After the performance, I went to my father's tomb. I felt that 
I had finally done something that would make him proud. 


I’ve always doubted the existence of sleepwalkers until recently, 
when I came across an essay by the poet Niu Han. In the essay, 
he wrote: “As a member of the so-called intellectual elite, I was 
beaten severely on the head by Red Guards during the Cultural 
Revolution. There was severe bleeding in my brain, and even- 
tually, the blood pinched a nerve and I began to sleepwalk. The 
habit of sleepwalking has tortured me for almost half a century 
and has become part of me. I sleepwalk during the day or night. 
I have become a person who can never wake up from his sleep. " 

Several years ago, I was introduced to Li Ying, a veteran 
Communist official. During our conversation, I learned that 
her novelist husband, Guan Dong, also suffers from sleepwalk- 
ing. Thus, we began a long chat. 

liao yiwu: I heard that your husband, Guan Dong, has written a short 
story that has a character who sleepwalks. Is the story autobiographical? 

li ying: You are not the first person to ask that question. I wouldn’t say 
the whole story is autobiographical, but the part about sleepwalking is. 
Unlike the poet Niu Han, who suffered during the Cultural Revo- 
lution, my husband began sleepwalking under different traumatic 

In 1948, China was still ruled by the Nationalists under Chiang 
Kai-shek. Guan Dong was a college student who was very actively 
involved in the student movement against government corruption. 
Once, he took part in a street demonstration and scuffled with police. 
He was arrested and put in jail for over forty days. Finally, under public 
pressure, the government ordered his release. On the day when prison 
authorities told him that he could go home, he was asked to sign some 
papers, and was led down a dark hallway where he saw several dark 
shadows move toward him. Guan Dong immediately turned around 


The Sleepiiwlker 

and wanted to run. But he was blocked from all directions. His attack- 
ers held thick wooden sticks. One guy hit him right on top of his head. 
He let out a loud scream and passed out. After he regained conscious- 
ness, he found himself inside a spacious room of a hospital. The thugs 
had dumped him outside on the street and strangers brought him in. I 
was working as a nurse at that hospital. 

That incident made him a celebrity and a hero overnight. The pub- 
lic began to pressure the government to investigate the case. Many 
believed that the government sent those thugs to beat up Guan Dong 
in order to intimidate other student activists. While at the hospital, 
several pro-Communist organizations sent representatives to visit him. 
Newspapers carried his story with big pictures of him. His room was 
always filled with flowers, most of which were sent by women. With 
such care and encouragement from the public, he recovered very fast. 
At the beginning of 1949, the Communist takeover was imminent. The 
Nationalist government was collapsing fast. It was chaos everywhere. 
Guan Dong wanted to go back home but the doctor advised him to stay 
on for a couple more months. 

They put Guan Dong under my care. As time went by, 1 began to 
fall in love with him. One day, I was carrying a medicine tray and was 
about to leave the nurses station when I heard a loud scream coming 
from Guan Dong's room. It was as loud as the siren from a train. I was 
so startled that 1 dropped my tray, spilling meds all over the floor. I 
dashed toward his room and kicked the door open. Many of the med- 
ical staff also rushed over. Guess what? He was standing by the win- 
dow, calmly smoking a cigarette. He acted as if nothing had happened. 
He didn't know why so many people had shown up at his room. He pat- 
ted me on the shoulder, all smiles: What's the matter? Why is everyone 
here? Has anything happened? 

I thought he was play-acting and became too angry to say anything. 
Later on, the doctor called me into his office and said: Are you sure you 
want to marry this guy? Guan Dong will probably never recover from 
his injury. Right now, there are still some blood clots inside his brain. 
Our hospital will not be able to remove the clots because we don’t have 
the skills and technology. Therefore, whenever the blood pinches the 
nerves, he could experience memory blackouts. The episode you just 
saw, I mean the scream, may be the first of many such future out- 
bursts. I was stunned, and asked if this would happen frequently. The 



doctor said: The same symptoms will appear when he is nervous, under 
stress, or overexcited. But luckily, Guan Dong is a strong person. He is 
an optimist. I think he will handle it OK. Nowadays, technology is 
developing fast. Once the conditions in our hospital have improved, 
we ll be able to operate and treat his illness. 

That was what the doctor told me in 1949. Little did I know that his 
illness would drag on lor over forty years without a cure. I’ve gotten 
used to his sporadic loud screams. There was one more torturous 
symptom that the doctor didn’t mention: sleepwalking. Under normal 
conditions, Guan Dong has a very calm demeanor. He is a very consid- 
erate person. However, during sleepwalking, he displays another side 
of him — he is full of passion and excitement. He does it in a very quiet 
and almost soundless manner. Just like what Freud described in his 
book, all human dreams are abrupt and incomplete, and have a lot to 
do with life in our early years. Guan Dong cannot remember his 
dreams. 1 will normally tell him what I have witnessed. That’s how he 
got to incorporate the details into his short story. 

liao: When did he begin to sleepwalk? 

Li: It was in the third month after we got married. 1 remember the date 
very well because it was right before the Communist troops moved into 
Beijing. Like many residents, Guan Dong was very excited because he 
was an idealist, believing that the Communists could change the old 
corrupt regime. On the night before the troops officially marched into 
the city, we had made arrangements with other friends to meet the next 
day for a celebration ceremony on the campus of Beijing University. 

An hour or so after we went to bed, 1 woke up. 1 found Guan Dong 
had left the room. Then, I heard some faint noises coming from the 
public bathroom down the hallway. I slowly opened the door, and 
walked barefoot to the bathroom. I saw him standing in front of a mir- 
ror, shaving. 1 called out to him in a low hushed voice, “Guan Dong, 
Guan Dong.” He didn’t answer me and continued with his shaving. In 
a few minutes, he began to wash his face very quietly. After the wash- 
ing and shaving, he slowly turned around. 1 could see his chin was 
bleeding; his eyes stared straight ahead. Since he is much taller than I 
am, his rigid stare passed over my head. I began to realize what was 
going on. Since his doctor had warned me not to wake him up during 

The Sleepwalker 301 

his sleepwalking, saying it could cause sudden death, I rushed back to 
the bedroom and pretended to sleep. I was praying that he would come 
back to bed. But he didn t. He walked into the room, made a 180- 
degree turn as if in a military exercise, and walked stiffly out of the 
door. He was in his underwear and barefoot. 

I put on clothes and followed him closely. He took a familiar path 
in front of the dorm building. I was afraid that he could follow this tree- 
lined path that led to the patient ward. That would be horrible. He 
passed through the garden and walked in the direction of the morgue 
next to the Infectious Disease Ward. I didn t know what to do except to 
follow him. We didn't have cell phones then, and there was no way I 
could call a doctor on duty to help me out. He stopped in front of the 
morgue, pushed the door open, and walked inside. Guan Dong made a 
mess inside the morgue. He pulled two corpses out from the refrigera- 
tors and then held them standing against the wall. I knocked on the 
door of the guard and begged him, with tears in my eyes, to help me 
out. Luckily, the guard didn t freak out. He picked up a thin wooden 
stick from the floor and walked inside. He edged closer to Guan Dong, 
standing side by side with him. Then, as Guan Dong was raising his 
arm, the guard slipped the thin wooden stick into Guan Dong’s hands. 
The guard held one end of the stick and Guan Dong held the other. 
The guard began to lead Guan Dong by the stick and, strangely, he fol- 
lowed. After the guard led him into our dorm, Guan Dongjumped onto 
the bed and soon began his thunderous snore. 

liao. That sounded pretty dangerous. Did your husband ever hurt you 
during his sleepwalking? 

li. He never hurt anybody during sleepwalking. When it first happened, 

I informed the doctor at my hospital. With their approval, I managed to 
put a couple of sleeping pills in his water cup and asked him to drink 
the water before he went to sleep each night. I also asked my neighbor 
to lock our door from the outside. In this way, even if he sleepwalked, 
he would end up walking around the house. He is not a detail-oriented 
person at all. He didn t know about the sleeping pills, but just said his 
water tasted a little strange. He never bothered to probe further. As 
time went by, I began to notice a pattern. As long as his mood and emo- 
tions were under control, he was OK. Guan Dong loved writing. After 



the new Communist government was established, they needed young 
people with a pro-Communist background to work in the publishing 
industry. Guan Dong was soon hired by a newly formed publishing 
house. Unfortunately, not long after he started his job, the Korean War 
broke out, and China joined North Korea to fight against the U.S. 
Guan Dong signed up with the troops without telling me. After he told 
me about his decision, I was shocked and tried to stop him. I couldn’t tell 
him the truth about his illness. I was afraid he would be too traumatized. 

I concocted a lie, saying that he couldn't go because 1 was preg- 
nant. After he heard the news, he only laughed. In those days, young 
people were asked to put the interests of the country above everything 
else. The fact that his wife was pregnant was not a legitimate cause for 
deterring a husband from joining the army. So I went to ask for help 
from the president of the hospital, hoping he could write to the army 
about Guan Dong's illness. But the president was under investigation 
by the new government. They suspected that he was a spy for the old 
Nationalist regime. 1 wouldn’t give up. I eventually located the doctor 
who had treated Guan Dong and dug out his old files. I excitedly 
clutched his files and ran over to the recruitment center. After 1 
handed over his medical records to officers there, they told me he had 
already left with the troops. I was so worried. I went over to the train 
station and got myself a ticket to the North Korean border. Before the 
train reached its destination, it stopped at a small station. Some sol- 
diers got on and asked all passengers to get off. Only those with special 
passes could stay on the train. 1 was told that the war had already 

During the first three months, Guan Dong did a terrific job as an 
embedded journalist. He wrote some wonderful articles for the news- 
papers at home. More important, if needed, he could pick up a gun and 
fight like a soldier. He was a sharpshooter and was even awarded a 
medal. But soon he was charged with being a “U.S. spy” and was sent 
back to China. 

Do you know why? One night, his unit was carrying out an assign- 
ment to ambush the enemy troops. As he and his comrades were hiding 
in the bushes, he suddenly jumped up, dropped his gun, and let out a 
loud scream for no reason at all. As you may have guessed, the enemy 
was alerted. They fired a firebomb, and within seconds the bushes 
where the Chinese troops were hiding were lit up. The whole plan was 

The Sleepwalker 303 

sabotaged and there were heavy casualties on the Chinese side. The 
commander had to request reinforcements so his unit could retreat. 
During the retreat, a bullet hit Guan Dongs leg. His comrades, who 
were so mad at his irrational behavior, tied him up and dragged him out 
of there. Later on, the hospital record that I submitted to the military 
saved him from being tried in a military court. He returned to Beijing, 
full of guilt and regrets. That guilt has haunted him all his life. How- 
ever, if it hadn’t been for the bullet wound in his leg, he wouldn’t even 
remember that he screamed before the enemy fire. 

liao: By then, Guan Dong was well aware of his illness. What did 
he do? 

li. He was a little depressed for a couple of weeks. He would drink alone 
at home. He kept saying to me: I didn’t hurt you, did I? If I’m too much 
of a burden to you, we can file for divorce. I comforted him with the 
patience of a nurse: Since you love me so much, you won t hurt me. 
Dreams are mostly the reflections from your conscious behavior. You 
are a kind person, and the kindness will reflect in your subconscious 
behavior. Thats why I m not afraid. Guan Dong stared at me for a long 
time before he finally said: 1 hope you are not lying just to make me feel 
better. My outburst in North Korea led to the deaths and injuries of 
many of my fellow soldiers. I’m the one who should have been killed. I 
hugged him and said: Guan Dong, you need to snap out of your depres- 
sion and cheer up. We are still young and I'm sure we’ll find a cure for 
your illness. He was touched, and finally he said: With you by my side, 
I’m sure I can recover. Many years have passed and I can still remem- 
ber these words vividly. 

liao: What happened later? 

li: Guan Dong went back to the publishing house. He got along with 
everyone, and his boss liked him a lot. Each time he asked to take a 
leave ot absence lor treatment, his boss would give permission and pro- 
vide financial help without giving him any hassles. We traveled to 
Shanghai and Guangzhou, and even sought help from experts in the 
Soviet Union, which was China’s close ally in the 1950s. Nobody dared 
to operate on him. We had no choice but to wait for a miracle. To avoid 



doing any damage during his sleepwalking, Guan Dong would tire 
himself out by staying up very late editing manuscripts. Before he 
went to sleep, he would lock the bedroom door from the outside, hide 
all the sharp metal instruments, and then drink several shots of liquor 
to ensure sound sleep. He would always sleep on the living room 

In 1957, Chairman Mao launched his anti-Rightist campaign. Since 
all the writers and administrators at the publishing house enjoyed 
pretty close relations, the leadership only singled out a few “Rightists.” 
Apparently, that didn’t satisfy the municipal authorities, which set 
quotas for every government-run organization. Since the campaign's 
primary target was intellectuals, the municipal government had specif- 
ically allocated a large quota to Guan Dong's company, which had a 
large number of editors and writers. According to Mao, writers and edi- 
tors were the most dangerous ones who harbored ill feelings toward the 
Party. To fulfill the quota, the publishing house reluctantly named two 
more people who confessed that they had expressed dissatisfaction 
with the Party in their diaries. Then Guan Dong's boss, Mr. Wang, 
received a notice from the municipal government that they needed to 
come up with one more Rightist. If the publishing house didn’t name 
another one, the municipal Party leadership would send a task force to 
investigate the company. In the end, under pressure from above, Mr. 
Wang made a plea at a staff meeting: If we still cannot find a Rightist, I 
will turn myself in since I’m responsible for every decision here. Upon 
hearing that, Guan Dong became impatient and stood up: You can't do 
that. You have a large family to support, your parents, your children and 
grandchildren. If you are labeled a Rightist, all your children will be 
implicated and their future will be ruined. Why don’t you pick me to fill 
the quota? I don’t have children. Mr. Wang asked: What does your wife 
think? Have you talked with her? Guan Dong answered: I don’t need 
to. In the past, you’ve been so generous to me when it came to treating 
my illness. It’s a good time for us to pay you back. I’m sure my wife 
would agree. We are honored that we could do this for you. Mr. Wang 
said, But you have not done or said anything against the Communist 
Party. I can’t make any accusations against you. Guan Dong hesitated 
and said: Why don’t I say something against the Communist Party 
now? Since everyone is here, they can testify against me. If this still 
doesn’t work, I can say that as an editor, I used to edit all the articles 
written by the Rightists and counterrevolutionaries. 


The Sleepwalker 
liao: That was very altruistic. 

Li: He was a hero for a couple of minutes and ended up paying a hefty 
price in the next twenty years. Not long after he was labeled a Rightist, 
he was kicked out of the publishing house and we were sent down to 
the countryside outside Beijing for reeducation through hard labor. 
Before our departure, Guan Dong went hack to his work unit to say 
goodbye to his former colleagues. It was barely two months since he 
had made himself a Rightist, but people seemed to have forgotten all 
about how it had happened. They all shunned him like he was carrying 
some infectious disease. A female co-worker used to be Guan Dong’s 
good friend. When they bumped into each other in the courtyard, the 
woman thought he was going to attack her. She became so frightened, 
and while running away, she fell into a sewage ditch. The reaction from 
his former co-workers shocked Guan Dong. His everyday smiles disap- 
peared. After he got home, he downed half a bottle of liquor and passed 
out. A few hours later, his sleepwalking resumed. This time, he broke 
the window and jumped out. Fortunately, we lived on the first floor of 
an apartment building and he didn t kill himself. This latest recurrence 
made him really depressed for a while. While we were in the country- 
side, he worked hard in the field all day. Before he went to bed at night, 
he would tie himself up in bed. He did that brutal thing to himself for 
many years until we were allowed to move back to Beijing in the late 
1970s, after the central government reversed its verdict against him. 

liao: Do you have children? 

li: No, we don’t. At the beginning, we were too busy seeking treatment 
for his illness. Alter the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, famine 
hit China. With people dying in the millions, it was senseless for us to 
even consider having children. After the famine passed and food 
became relatively abundant in 1964, I told Guan Dong that I wanted to 
have a baby. But he was worried that his Rightist label could taint the 
future of his kids. 

liao: How did the famine affect you and Guan Dong? 

Li: Many Rightists suffered or died in the famine. Since I worked at a 
rural hospital, doctors and nurses were allocated more food than ordi- 


nary peasants. On top of that, Guan Dong constantly went to harass 
the county officials for extra food. Since we didn’t get to eat meat, our 
only source of protein was placenta, which I picked up from my hospi- 
tal. Locals didn’t want to touch the stuff for superstitious reasons. We 
were quite lucky that we survived. 

liao: Now that medical conditions have greatly improved, has Guan 
Dong been able to find a cure for his illness? 

Li: I assume that he could go have the surgery now but he doesn’t want 
to spend the money. He said jokingly that the devil had already inhab- 
ited his brain for many years. If the doctor took it out, there would be 
an empty hole in his brain and he wouldn't like it. What nonsense! He 
is already in his seventies and he still acts like a kid. We have taken 
quite a lot of preventive measures. We have a small courtyard house. 
We always lock the door in the evenings so he can't walk too far in his 
sleep. Sometimes, he would get up in the middle of the night, shave, 
and read in his study. One time, I got up quietly and took a peek 
through the door of the study. Unexpectedly, he began to talk: My dear, 
what are you doing there? I was so startled. Guess what? He was not 
sleepwalking, he was awake. He just doesn’t sleep that much these 

Guan Dong remains young at heart. In the late 1980s, the govern- 
ment was planning to shut down a well-known youth magazine 
because the editor published an article that allegedly contravened 
Party policy. The decision aroused anger from many intellectuals. 
When Guan Dong heard about it, he put on a T-shirt and ran barefoot 
to the office of the Party official who had played a key role in the shut- 
down. Guan Dong sat in the conference room and began to scream and 
cry. He made quite a commotion in there and drew a large sympathetic 
crowd. When everyone gathered, he gave a speech on why the Party 
shouldn’t suppress freedom of speech. He was so crazy. Since he was 
retired and had experienced so much in life, they didn’t know what to 
do about him. 

Recently, while he was reading late at night, he came across a 
magazine article about sleepwalking. He was so excited that he woke 
me up, and said: Look, it says here that in South America, there is a vil- 
lage for sleepwalkers. People work at night and sleepwalk during the 

The Sleepwalker 307 

daytime. If tourists visit the village at noon, they will see many people 
sleeping under the trees or sleepwalking on the street. The village is so 
quiet. 1 he village will come to life after dusk. The shops are open. Peo- 
ple get up and then resume their nightly business. By midnight, the 
whole village is lit up like daytime. The circus will come in and the 
whole place is packed with locals and tourists. 

liao: I’ve also heard about that story. 

u: Guan Dong doesn’t believe it’s a story. He truly thinks this place 
exists. He is now collecting materials, hoping he could visit the village 
before he dies. He says: That is the home for sleepwalkers. If you don’t 
sleepwalk, you are considered a freak. Isn’t that great? I assume that 
Gabriel Garcia Marquez must have visited the place. His book One 
Hundred Years of Solitude is written in such a dreamlike style. Some- 
times, in my dreams, I thought I have written lots of great stuff on 
paper. When I wake up the next day, it is still a piece of blank paper. 
Nothing has been written down. 

liao: It seems that sleepwalking is both a misfortune and a blessing for 
Guan Dong. In a way, sleepwalking offers him some sort of dreamlike 
world that he can escape to, I mean, temporarily away from this murky 
world we live in. A pure and innocent person like Guan Dong deserves 
to live in heaven. 

Li: Despite all the hardships we have encountered in life, I think Guan 
Dong has always been living in heaven. 


In recent years, millions of peasants have migrated from the 
poverty-stricken rural areas to hig cities in search of better joh 
opportunities. Many of them end up working on construction 
sites or at clothing and toy factories. According to a Chinese 
government statistic, about 114 million rural laborers, known as 
min gong, or “peasant workers," swarmed into China’s major 
cities in 2003. 

In Chengdu, the Nine-Eye Bridge area has the most 
crowded labor market. The line of job seekers stretches as far as 
several blocks. On a recent winter morning, I disguised myself 
as a recruiter and visited the area, hoping to talk and get some 
stories out of the migrants. However, the trick did not work 
because nobody had the time to chat. Later that evening, I 
humped into Zhao Er on a side street near the New South 
Gate. Zhao, in his forties, was one of the migrants who took 
shelter on the street. He came from the northern part of 
Sichuan. He wouldn’t tell me his real name. I heard his shelter 
mates call him Zhao Er, or Zhao the Second. 

liao yiwu: How long have been away from home? 
zhao ER: Seven years. 
liao: Are you homesick? 

zhao: Of course. I have a wife and a bunch of kids. 

liao: What do you mean when you say “a bunch of kids ? Don t you guys 
in the rural areas have to follow the one-child policy? 

zhao: Of course we have to abide by the policy. In my village, you have 
to pay a fine of 3,000 yuan [US$380] if you have an additional child. I 

The Migrant Worker 


don't have no money to pay. What can they do? Not much. It’s not like 
in the old days when officials would penalize the violators by razing 
their houses or forcing women at childbearing age to have loops 
inserted into their wombs. Once they put the loop in, it was very hard 
to get it out. Some desperate peasants used chopsticks but still 
couldn't pull it out. Since Western countries criticize China for treating 
women like animals, the local government has stopped the practice, or 
at least they don t do it openly. 

There used to be a well-known comedy skit that made fun of 
country folks who ran away with their pregnant wives to faraway 
places so they could breed more kids. That was such an exaggera- 
tion. Come to think of it, it takes money to run away. Who is paying 
for the transportation? Nowadays, it’s hard to sneak on and off trains 
without a ticket. I have three daughters. They were all born in the vil- 
lage. Since I had violated the policy, a family planning official visited 
my house, which was a dump. It was so dark inside my house, she 
couldnt see nothing. She tripped over a makeshift stove and became 
panicked. At that time, my wife was breastfeeding our third daughter. 
The other two kids seized the official's coattails and begged her for 

candy. She ran out as fast as she could. After that visit, she never both- 
ered us again. 

liao: If you were so poor, why did you keep having children? 

zhao: I am penniless. I have no luck with money at all. That’s my fate. 
But my dick is not willing to accept fate. That stuff down there is the 
only hard spot in my body. The more seeds I plant, the more likely it is 
that I can change my fate and fortune. Also, unlike you city folks, we 
peasants don’t have money to go visit the nightclubs. In the evenings, 
when its dark and boring, we have nothing else to do except to pin our 
wives down and go “nightclubbing.” If you are not extra careful, acci- 
dents will happen. Your wife’s stomach will get big again. Who do I 
blame r My wife badly wanted a son. The more she wanted a son, the 
more damn daughters she bred. 

liao: Do you save money to send home? 

ZHAO: Yes, I used to send money regularly. But I haven't done that for 
over half a year now. 


3 >° 

liao: Without the money, what are your wife and kids supposed to do at 

zhao: They have to figure out their own ways to survive. My wife knows 
the township pretty well. When times are hard, she drags the kids 
along, begging from door to door. She probably gets more income than 
I do. Children in the countryside are not born with silver spoons in 
their mouths. When they get to the ages of two to three and start to 
walk steadily on their own, they begin helping out with household 
chores or go out begging for food. I find that kids growing up in rich 
families are more difficult to raise. They look damn healthy and fat, but 
end up in hospitals every other day. My kids, on the contrary, never get 
sick. They are tempered by wind and rain. They are just like young 
trees. When you just leave them alone, every time you turn around, 
they get a bit taller. 

liao: As a father, how can you be so guilt-free about this? 

zhao: I can't even take care of myself. Life at home might be hard but at 
least they have a home. I have to sleep on the street. Look at these folks 
around me here. They’re all much younger. I'm an old fart and have to 
put up with a lot of crap here. This location is close to the Nine-Eye 
Bridge Labor Market. I need to be there early tomorrow. If I’m lucky, I 
can probably get a job with a restaurant nearby. Early in the day, I was 
planning to look for a construction job. Construction is hard work, but 
the pay is slightly better. When my stomach gets empty and the cold air 
moves in, all I crave is a restaurant job where I can get a bowl of hot 
noodles for free. Over there, near the funeral home, there is a noodle 
place run by a plump lady. She charges three yuan per bowl of noodles, 
with free refills on the noodles, not the sauce. Once, I was so starved 
that I ended up eating seven bowls of noodles! 

liao: Sounds like you are more attached to your noodles than to your 
own daughters. 

zhao: Hey buddy, can you spare a couple of yuan so I can get a bowl of 

The Migrant Worker 31 1 

liao: Here is ten yuan. Be quiet and don't make any fuss. Otherwise, 
the other guys will come asking for money from me. By the way, do you 
always sleep on the street like this? 

ZHAO: You can't call this “sleeping on the street.” This is a rainproof plas- 
tic tent. Down here, I’m sleeping on a waterproof sheet. When I put a 
quilt on top of the sheet, it's like sleeping on a comfortable bed. Being 
frugal can save me from future starvation. 

I lived on the street when I first arrived in the city. Later on, I 
started a tricycle business and had money to share an apartment with a 
couple of other guys. Then, after several of my tricycles were confis- 
cated, I went broke. I couldn’t afford the rent. 1 thought of getting a 
cheap five-yuan hostel room early this evening, but by the time I got 
there, the place was full. 

liao: Where is this place? Why is it so cheap? 

zhao: Near the Nine-Eyed Bridge. There are a bunch of plastic tents 
and some shabby houses. During daytime, it is a market. Vendors use 
the tents as stalls for their merchandise. In the evening, the tents are 
converted into bedrooms, with all sides sealed. For a bigger tent, you 
can squeeze seven or eight people in there. In the wintertime, when 
bodies are crammed in together, you get pretty warm. Sometimes, it’s 
so warm that you sweat simply by blowing a fart. Each day, before dusk, 
the owner will stand outside the tent to collect money and get as many 
people in one tent as possible. Her favorite saying is a spoof on an old 
quote trom Chairman Mao: We come together from all corners of the 
earth, united by a common goal of starting a Communist revolution.” 
She changed it to: “We are all travelers, coming from all corners of the 
earth, hor one common goal of making money; we are now squeezed 
together. Even that damn place was fully occupied tonight. Last 
week, I got a nice paid spot deep inside a shabby building. But around 
midnight, I got up to take a dump. When I returned, I found the 
spot had been taken. I tried hard to squeeze in but got kicked out 
by seven or eight pairs of feet. I was so mad. So I wrapped myself in 
a quilt and sat by the door until morning. Sleeping over here is not 
bad at all. At least its spacious. If this were summer, it would be even 



LIAO: How did you end up in the city? Do you own any land at home? 

zhao: No, I don’t. About ten years ago, my parents’ family was allotted a 
small piece of farmland. When 1 got married, the village didn’t have any 
land left. Even if we had, we wouldn't be able to make money on the 
crops. The local government levied all sort of taxes. Many young people 
left the village to search for jobs in cities. I did the same thing. I got my 
first job at a coal mine, not far away from my village. 

liao: Were you employed by a township-run coal company? 

zhao: No. I worked for a small privately owned coal company, which 
piggybacked on the state mines. If the state company dug coal from 
one side of the mountain, my boss would secretly dig from the other 
side. The whole mountain looked like a beehive, with all sorts of holes. 
The local government was aware of our illegal mining activities but 
turned a blind eye. Most county officials took bribes from the private 
company owners. 

We would normally dig a tunnel with a tiny entrance. We had to 
crawl inside with a basket on our back. The coal mine was shaped like 
a wine bottle. As you went down the tunnel, the place got bigger. It was 
always pitch-dark down there. 

liao: Didn’t you guys have cap lamps and a pneumatic coal pick? 

zhao: We were illegal miners and didn't have fancy equipment like that. 
We simply tied a flashlight to our heads. As for the pneumatic coal 
pick, we couldn’t use it at all. Once you plugged it in, the vibrating 
noise was too loud. It was dangerous because the vibrations could 
cause the mine to collapse. The structure of the coal mine was made of 
cheap wood sticks — any type of shaking could topple it. Nowadays, 
you hear a lot about people dying inside mines. I know exactly what has 
caused the accidents. There is no safety protection. Those private mine 
owners are brutal bastards. They never care for workers’ safety. I 
worked for the coal company, on and off, for three years. My daily 
salary was about two or three yuan. My face was smeared with so much 
coal dust. As time went by, the dust seeped into the skin around my 
neck and the back of my ears. 1 couldn't get it off. It wouldn’t help even 

The Migrant Worker 313 

if I tried to rub the skin off. I was tired all the time. Sometimes, when I 
got home, I fell asleep while eating. 

liao: Why did you leave? 

zhao. In the 1980s, I could pretty much make ends meet by working in 
the mine. However, in the mid-1990s, everything became so expensive, 
but our salary remained the same. Sometimes, I worked seven days a 
week and the money I got couldn't even buy enough food for my family. 
On top of that, county officials also charged us all sorts of fees. We 
worked our asses off only to fatten the pockets of those bastards. Then 
several state coal companies in the region went bankrupt because’ they 
had bad management. The laid-off state workers clenched their teeth 
with hatred each time they saw us. They felt that we had stolen their 
jobs. We were worried that those angry state workers could become 
desperate and block the entrance of our coal mine. We could all be 
dead inside. Aiya, as a result, many of us fled. In my village, many 
young guys moved to the cities to work on construction jobs; many 
women worked as nannies. Some women became whores. 1 don't 
blame those poor women. Luckily, my wife had three kids, otherwise, 
she would also be turned into a whore. Two months ago, I ran into a 
shoeshine woman near the Nine-Eye Bridge. It was getting dark but 
she was still busy peddling her service: “shoeshine, shoeshine.” She 
somehow looked familiar. I went up closer and found out that she was 
the wife of my fellow villager, Dog Mouth Zhang. It turned out that she 
was polishing “yellow shoes.” 

liao: What’s that? 

zhao . It s the code name for prostitution. Those women will come out in 
the evenings and look for clients in the name of polishing their shoes. 
Once a guy stops and shows some interest, she will start polishing his 
shoes first, and then reaches up to fondle his ankle, while haggling over 
the price. For fifty yuan [US$6.40], she is willing to offer a full service. 
Of course, if a chick is young with full breasts, the transaction is easier. 
An older woman will have a hard time. My friend, Dog Mouth Zhang’s 
wife, is almost thirty and has several kids. Her boobs sag to her waist! 
She will be lucky if she can sell herself for twenty yuan. 


3 ! 4 

In this area, the young, pretty, and slick-tongued chicks go pick up 
clients at nightclubs. The older and ugly ones conduct their businesses 
at hair salons, or on the street. Let me tell you, those hookers from the 
countryside are picking up new things very fast. Shortly after they 
arrive in the city, they begin to drop their accents and speak standard 
Mandarin, powder their faces, and flirt by swinging their little butts. 
Some hookers even pay money to buy a fake college degree. Having a 
college degree can get them a rich guy. Then they will make up lies by 
saying that they hope to earn more money so they can change to a new 
career that matches their degree. So much bullshit! 

Every now and then, I will indulge myself and get a hooker. I nor- 
mally pay ten or sometimes twenty yuan. One day, I was really short of 
money. I tried to bargain down to five yuan but ended up getting a 
smack on the head with a shoe brush. That bitch stood up, with her 
hand on her hip, and said: You are much older than I am. Why don’t I 
pay you five yuan to get a piece of your ass? 

liao: You are such a jerk. 

zhao: Don’t you think I earned my money easily? When I first arrived in 
Chengdu, I worked at a construction site, pouring concrete and digging 
dirt. After more than a year, I had saved two hundred yuan [US $24]. 
With the help of a friend, I bought a tricycle and used it as a cab to 
drive people or deliver merchandise. It was kind of exciting. One bad 
thing was that we couldn’t get city registration because I wasn’t a city resi- 
dent. I had to dodge the police constantly, like a chicken dodging a wolf. 

liao: How long did you drive a tricycle? 

zhao: For over two years. The city confiscated three of my tricycles. 

liao: There are over ten thousand unregistered tricycle cabs in the city. 
Those registered tricycle cabs are complaining that you guys are steal- 
ing their business. 

zhao: We made our living through hard labor. It's better than stealing or 
robbing people. I'm kind of mad that migrants like me are being treated 
like thieves. In those days, when someone yelled, “Police are coming," 

The Migrant Worker 315 

everyone would pedal away as far as our legs carried us, like geese hit 
by a bamboo stick. We would all dive into the side streets. I seldom got 

But greed is my weakness. Each time, someone offered me a high 
price, I forgot about the risks. On one occasion, a woman customer 
wanted a ride from the Intercity Bus Terminal near to the Baiguolin 
area. I didnt want to go. So I called out a random price — ten yuan. I 
didn't think she would agree to it. But she did. I was still reluctant to go, 
but she begged me and called me, “Sir, sir.” She was kind of cute and 
her pleading softened my heart. I figured it was Sunday and the route 
around the second ring road would be okay. So I decided to take her. 

It was in the summer. Out-of-towners love to take tricycle rides: 
cheap and cool. The second ring road was pretty dusty, but the scenery 
wasn t bad. I offered the woman my umbrella so she could shield her 
face from the sun. Soon, I was sweating. 1 took off my shirt and bared 
my back. She told me to he careful, not to catch a cold. When a cus- 
tomer started to be real sweet, I couldn t help chatting away. I just 
couldn t shut up. I told her about the best park in town, the shop where 
she could get good bargain prices, et cetera. I acted as if I were a 
C hengdu native. In reality, I was just bragging for the heck of it. 

As I was making a turn near Zhongxin Road and sliding down a 
slope, a couple of police motorbikes blocked my way. I was scared shit- 
less. I turned around and tried to go back up the slope. I pedaled very 
hard and several times the tricycle slid back down. That woman was 
also scared and tried to jump from the tricycle. She poked my bare 
back with the umbrella. My back was bleeding but I didn’t dare to stop. 
She then raised the umbrella and beat me with it. She was also kicking 
me. That umbrella cost me eight yuan, but soon it was in shreds. Later 
on the police motorbikes caught up and cornered me. Damn it. I had 
just paid off my tricycle loan. I clung to my vehicle and wouldn’t let go. 
Tears and sweat ran down my cheeks. The police didn t give a damn 
about how I felt. They threw the vehicle onto a truck waiting nearby. I 
ran alter the police for a couple of blocks, begging and crying. It was 
useless. I had lost my vehicle and my umbrella. I didn’t even get to col- 
lect the fare from that woman. She even had the nerve to ask me to 
compensate her for the emotional trauma I had caused her. That bitch! 
During the next several hours, I walked around the city aimlessly. I felt 
so empty inside. 



LIAO: Why didn’t you do your business outside the second ring road, as 
was required by city ordinance? 

zhao: There were too many migrants outside the second ring road. The 
neighborhood was not safe and many people took rides without paying, 
especially members of the local triad gangs. They would constantly col- 
lect protection fees from us. For us illegal tricycle cabdrivers, we 
couldn’t go report to the police if we were blackmailed. Near the 
Wukuaishi region, all pickpockets have formed their own gangs. Some- 
times, they use knives in gang fights. A guy got stabbed and his intes- 
tines were pulled out. Since it was too expensive to send him to a big 
hospital, his fellow gang members used my tricycle and took him to a 
small clinic to have his stomach sewed up. Hey, let me tell you that 
shitty doctor wore a pair of old reading spectacles and worked on the 
wounds like he was sewing shoes, pulling the strings in and out. The 
guy was dripping blood. So the doctor put a basin under the operating 
table. It was scary, but miraculously, the guy survived. 

The most brutal bunch are those ethnic Yi people. During daytime, 
they all squat by the side of the road, a whole bunch of them in their 
black shawls, like a flock of bald eagles. No local gangs dare to touch 
them. They call those Yi guys “dark clouds.” 

liao: That’s very vivid. 

zhao: The ethnic Yi people are very unique. Unless they are desperately 
hungry, they won’t rob a pedestrian. But if they see a pickpocket steal- 
ing, they will immediately follow him like a dark cloud. Then they 
spread their black shawls and surround the pickpocket guy and 
scream, “Wow, Wow, Wow." If the guy is smart, he will turn over his 
money. If he tries to fight back, the knives of the Yi guys are faster than 
you can imagine. Those knives have been soaked in poisonous liquid. 
Once you get a cut, it becomes infected and takes months to heal. 

liao: In other words, those pickpockets have become the slave workers 
for the Yi guys. 

zhao: Almost. That’s why you never see any pickpockets in places where 
the Yi guys stay. Well, those Yi guys are not angels. They normally do 

The Migrant Worker 317 

their dirty business after midnight. They attack residential buildings 
one by one. All they need is a rope with a hook at the end. Most Yi guys 
are skillful mountain climbers. With the rope, they can climb walls eas- 
ily. When they steal, they take anything they see: sausages, preserved 
meat, clothes, even diapers that people hang on their balconies. They 
just dump everything into their shawl. Once they break into a house, 
they take all the things that move. For big items, such as refrigerators, 
washing machines, they generally smash them. People hate them. 
Every year, the police will raid those places where Yi people gather and 
send them back to their hometowns in the mountains. After a couple of 
those raids, the neighborhood will be quiet for a month or so. Then the 
pickpockets will return. The residents in the area are facing a new set 
of problems. 

liao. Have you ever seen any thieves in action? They are pretty rampant 
in big cities now. 

zhao: Yes. Those thieves rob people in broad daylight. They snatch ear- 
rings and necklaces. Sometimes, they will grab a woman’s hand and try 
to pull the ring from her fingers. The easiest victims are those well- 
dressed girls, carrying purses as big as your palm, and swinging their 
asses to the point of blinding you. Hey, within seconds, their purse is 
cut open. It they scream “Thieves, ” they may end up getting beaten up. 
Once, I drove a businessman and we were passing Moping Road. My 
client looked strong and big. He was chatting on his cell phone. Pulling 
him on a tricycle needed lots of strength. I was soon out of breath. 
At that point, six or seven people jumped onto my tricycle cab, one 
grabbed the big guy's neck and another wrestled his arm. The tricycle 
was almost turned upside down. Damn. Within minutes, all the pock- 
ets of that businessman’s suits and pants were searched. His belt was 
pulled out. They even patted his underwear to make sure he didn’t hide 
money there. In the end, he begged them not to take his shoes because 
he uouldnt be able to walk home. The thieves completely ignored his 
plea, saying that they wanted to see if there was any money hidden 
inside. That businessman was left with nothing. He ended up covering 
his face and crying like a woman. Many people saw those thieves, 
nobody stepped up to help. 


liao: What were you doing? Why didn't you call the cops? 

zhao: How could I get away? 1 was so shaken that I began to have 
cramps in my legs. Also, there are so many thieves nowadays. What 
could I do? I wasn’t looking for trouble. All I cared about was my tricy- 
cle. If those guys broke it, it would cost me a bundle to have it fixed. 
On the other hand, that business guy was as stupid as a bear. From his 
looks, you would assume he would know some Chinese martial arts. 
Nope. Later on I tried to push him out of the cab, but he wouldn't 
move. So I drove him home. But when I asked him to pay the fare, he 
started to swear at me. 

liao: You certainly know how to protect yourself. 

zhao: Sir, are you being sarcastic? I’m already a homeless person, and I 
don’t possess any superhero qualities. Sir, are you a reporter? Super- 
man was a reporter. China needs selfless supermen at the moment. 
Crime has gone up and people are desperate. China’s economy seems 
to be developing very fast, but there are still too many poor people. Too 
many people want to strike it rich. I’m lucky that I didn't turn into a 

Oh well, it's been raining for quite some time now. I wonder what 
the weather will be like tomorrow. Maybe 1 should go pick up an odd 
job at a construction site if it's sunny. Who knows! 

Translator’s Acknowledgments 

Following his release from a Chinese prison, Liao Yiwu asked a blind 
fortune-teller to forecast his future. The fortune-teller felt around Liao's 
face, inquired the date and time of his birth, and told Liao that his future 
would start to look promising because he would be assisted and blessed 
by several guiren, or noblemen. 

Translating and bringing Liao’s works to English readers has cer- 
tainly proved the wisdom of that fortune-teller. The Corpse Walker: Real- 
Life Stories , China from the Bottom Up wouldnt have been possible 
without noblemen and noblewomen. 

My gratitude goes to Philip Gourevitch and his editorial staff at The 
Paris Review who first introduced Liao’s works to the West by publishing 
three excerpts in their magazine. Philip’s unwavering confidence in Liao’s 
works and his enthusiastic support motivated and helped me get to where 
we are today. 

I owe a special gratitude to Esther Allen at the PEN Translation 
Fund for discovering Liaos works and jump-starting my career as a transla- 
tor. I want to thank Sarah Chalfant for her generous support. 

Liaos friend Kang Zhengguo deserves a special note. As a volunteer 
agent, Kang has diligently looked after Liaos interests overseas and 
served as a conduit between Liao and the outside world. I also want to 
express my admiration for Chen Maiping and Cai Chu at the Indepen- 
dent Chinese PEN Center for tirelessly championing Liao s works abroad 
and for courageously promoting freedom of speech in China. 

Translator’s Acknowledgments 320 

My friends Doug Merwin, Professor Robert Crowley, Monica Eng, 
Carolyn Alessio, Bill Brown, Liang Xiaoyan, Chen Xiaoping, and Zhou 
Zhonglin have helped me a great deal in getting the book off the ground. 
Professor Crowley meticulously read the first draft of every translated 
story and offered valuable editorial suggestions. 

Both Liao and I are very lucky to have Peter Bernstein as our agent. 
I found Peter at a very challenging time in my career. With a reassuring 
and easily accessible style, Peter patiently helped me navigate the pub- 
lishing process. 

Last and most important, I want to express my gratitude, on behalf 
of Liao, to our editor, Erroll McDonald, for granting us the flexibility and 
creative freedom we needed in the translation process, and to Lily Evans 
and Robin Reardon for moving the process along smoothly. 


Liao Yiwu is a poet, novelist, and screenwriter. In 1989, he published an 
epic poem, Massacre, that condemned the killings in Tiananmen Square 
and tor which he spent four years in prison. His works include Testimo- 
nials and Report on China's Victims of Injustice. In 2003, Liao received the 
Hell man- Hammett Grant from Human Rights Watch, and he received 
the Freedom to Write Award from the Independent Chinese PEN Center 
in 2007. He currently lives in China. 


Wen Huang is a writer and freelance journalist whose articles and transla- 
tions have appeared in The Wall Street Journal Asia, the Chicago Tribune, 
the South China Morning Post, The Christian Science Monitor, and The 
Paris Review. 


This book was set in Fairfield, the first typeface from the hand of the dis- 
tinguished American artist and engraver Rudolph Ruzicka (1883-1978). In 
its structure Fairfield displays the sober and sane qualities of the master 
craftsman whose talent has long been dedicated to clarity. It is this trait 
that accounts for the trim grace and vigor, the spirited design and sensitive 
balance, of this original typeface. 

Rudolph Ruzicka was born in Bohemia and came to America in 1894. 
He set up his own shop, devoted to wood engraving and printing, in New 
York in 1913 after a varied career working as a wood engraver, in photo- 
engraving and banknote printing plants, and as an art director and free- 
lance artist. He designed and illustrated many books, and was the creator 
of a considerable list of individual prints — wood engravings, line engrav- 
ings on copper, and aquatints. 

Composed by Creative Graphics, 

Allentown, Pennsylvania 

Printed and bound by Berryville Graphics, 

Berryville, Virginia 

Designed by Soonyoung Kwon 

- • - 

LIAO YIWU is a poet, novelist, and screen- 
writer. In 1989, he published an epic poem, 


“Massacre,” that condemned the killings in 


Tiananmen Square and for which he spent 


four years in prison. His works include Testi 
monials and Report on China's Victims of 
Injustice. In 2003, he received a Human 
Rights Watch Hellman-Hammett Grant, and 
in 2007, he received a Freedom to Write Award o 

from the Independent Chinese PEN Center. He 
lives in China. 

WEN HUANG is a writer and freelance 
journalist whose articles and translations 
have appeared in The Wall Street Journal Asia, 
the Chicago Tribune, the South China Morning 
Post, The Christian Science Monitor, and The 
Paris Review. 





y ; " ? " 


Jm-- . 

‘Liao Yiwu is an original, but it seems a very good bet that writers 
as diverse as Mark Twain and Jack London, Nikolai Gogol and 
George Orwell, Frangois Rabelais and Primo Levi would have 
recognized him at once as a brother in spirit and in letters.” 

— from the foreword by Philip Goureviteh 

“Liao Yiwu is a dark horse in contemporary Chinese letters. He 
has not only existed outside the official literary apparatus but 
has also set himself against all fashionable trends. He lives 
perilously and writes about people at the bottom of the society, 
where most voices are silenced and lost. The Corpse Walker is Liao 
Yiwu’s representative work, a piece of witness literature par 
excellence.” — Ha Jin, author of Waiting 

| “A remarkable achievement.” 

'IrT ; 

—Kang Zhengguo, author of Confessions: An Innocent Life 
^ in Communist China 


ISBN 978-0-375-42542-4 

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